Who knew that the Home Office had cracked one of the key issues contributing to the criminal justice system’s poor performance in dealing with offences of rape and sexual violence?
Yet with the introduction of a new type of specialist support worker, the Independent Sexual Violence Advisor (ISVA), to assist victim-survivors of sexual violence before, during and after criminal proceedings, that is precisely the case. Uniquely, Rape Crisis Centres, academics, Home Office and Ministry of Justice departments and, most importantly, victim-survivors themselves all agree. (Robinson, 2009; Home Office, 2010).
It’s been obvious for some time that the barriers to reporting rape, and the shortcomings of the criminal justice system’s handling of rape claims, detrimentally impacts on victim-survivors’ confidence and participation in the justice system.
In 2005, the Home Office launched a pilot scheme to appoint a number of ISVAs to provide practical and emotional support as well as advice to victim-survivors and to liaise with relevant agencies on their behalf; the aim was to reduce their fear and uncertainty in navigating what can be a traumatic and lengthy criminal justice process.
Taking on board the reluctance of women and girls who have experienced rape or sexual abuse to engage with statutory agencies, the Home Office ensured the independence of ISVAs by placing them within agencies that had a non-judgemental, survivor-led ethos that is consistently remarked on: “She [the ISVA] came to the interviews with the Police, she’s been to hospitals and doctors with me, she helped me get off alcohol, and drugs. I just can’t, you know what I mean, without these [people] I truly wouldn’t be here today.” (Robinson, 2009: p27).
ISVAs have a uniquely holistic approach to the profound impacts of sexual violence, establishing an emotional connection based on their expertise and knowledge: “if a woman comes in here and has issues about her benefits or housing issues, stuff with the police, or legal system, child protection issues, we do it all. And if we don’t know how to do it, we bring a worker in who does it in here with her, so she’s only got to come here.” (Robinson, 2009: p27)
The knock-on effect of ISVAs supporting significant numbers of women, men and children who have been raped or abused is the sharing of their knowledge of concerns with policy or practice with partner agencies such as the police, Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) or courts. This keeps victim- survivors’ perspectives at the heart of operational practice.
In 2010, Baroness Stern conducted a review on behalf of the Home Office into the way in which rape complaints are handled by public authorities. She found: “in every part of the country, and from every organisation, unanimous praise for the work done by the ISVAs [… ] As an example of a reform to a system that is effective, cost-effective and affordable, the establishment of ISVAs is hard to beat.” (Home Office, 2010: p103)
It is a peculiar paradox that while the Home Office strategy to tackle violence against women and girls talks of “listening to and learning from victims and survivors” as essential to successfully tackling sexual crime, they will not commit to securely funding the ISVA service.
In contrast to other crimes, there is no national or strategic approach to ISVA services. This means that some areas of the country are without the service. Where there is a service, it is stretched thin – in the Midlands, in one ISVA team, an average caseload carried by each worker is around 60 victim-survivors of serious sexual violence. In some London boroughs, there are no ISVAs despite there being an “average of 11 sexual assaults and rapes of women per borough each week of the year” according to the most recent London Mayor’s Needs Assessment (MOPAC & NHS (England) London, 2016).
ISVAs are unsung heroes in the ongoing struggle to tackle sexual violence in all its forms. Time and again victim-survivors tell statutory services how essential ISVAs are: “Just knowing there was some moral support […] someone who knew what you were going through and was there, almost helping hold me upright if you like, so just knowing there was just one physical presence in the room that, you know, could be there for me, was really good. It made a big difference for me” (Robinson, 2009: p29-30).
A government committed to victims of sexual violence would capitalise on the ISVAs spectacular success with secure funding, high profile awards, research, and a public awareness campaign. But recent CPS figures show that the prosecution rate for rape has hit a five-year low (Dearden, 2019); a powerful message to victim-survivors that their fear and uncertainty about reporting rape is entirely justified.
In 2010, a report on the role of the NHS in responding to violence against women and girls noted bleakly that “if violence and abuse against women and children were a single disease […] it is likely that the NHS would be far more focused on it than is the case today.”