The Story Behind Saskatchewan’s First Ever Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review

In Phildelphia, during the late 90’s, controversy sparked over how the Philadelphia Police Department was mishandling sexual assault reports following the death of Shannon Schieber. Shannon became a victim of a serial perpetrator, sexually offending with impunity, because the Philadelphia PD were immediately dismissing numerous reports of sexual assault crimes by women, and classifying them  as “ unfounded”, or “no crime was attempted or occurred”.  As a result, numerous women were assaulted as the serial predator operated undetected for years, and eventually escalated their sexual violence to homicide. 

The murder of Shannon Schieber was seen as preventable. The Philadelphia Police had numerous reports indicating a sexual predator was active in the area, but the survivors’ reports were dismissed, and unbelieved.

An investigation into the city’s police force, its mishandling of sexual assault, and the Police Chief’s desire and commitment to “do better” would later bring to life what is known as the “Philadelphia Model” whereby front-line, local sexual violence experts partnered with the police force to help them establish a comprehensive reporting, and oversight process for sexual violence. 

Read more: Investigating rape in Philadelphia: how one city’s crisis stands to help others

Twenty years on, sexual violence advocates in Philadephia continue to directly review all sexual violence police files once per year to ensure proper procedure was followed, help restore the public’s trust in police, and foster transparency.  The positive impacts of these reviews would eventually spread across the United States. 

In Canada, sexual violence expert, and violence against women justice advocate, Sunny Marriner was investigating what was happening to sexual assault files which did not result in charges. What happened to the investigations and cases which did not meet police charging requirements? Did these uncharged cases have something in common?  

In answer to the above inquiry, Marriner was discovering the revolutionary happenings in Philadelphia, and saw the tremendous potential for survivors and their sexual assault cases. As such, Marriner sought to develop  an iteration of the “Philadelphia Model” in Canada, avoiding its shortcomings and building upon its successes. Thus, the Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review (VACR) was born, and is currently operating in almost 20 jurisdictions across Canada.

Sexual Assault Services of Saskatchewan partnered with Marriner to bring VACR to the province through its member agencies and other subject matter experts. The first Saskatchewan implementation of VACR was launched in Regina, in October 2019 through collaberation between the Regina Police Service and Regina Sexual Assault Centre. To date, 3 successful reviews have taken place. 

Read More: Globe & Mail investigative series “Unfounded” where journalist Robin Doolittle investigated how Canadian police services were handling sexual assault reports, and how many complaints were being immediately dismissed by police at the reporting stage of the criminal justice process.

How does Victim Advocate Case Review differ from the Philadelphia model?

In Philadelphia, advocates review all sexual assault files, both ongoing investigations and closed cases, giving feedback and recommendations once per year to the Philly PD. In contrast, VACR conducts quarterly reviews every three months; focuses on case files “cleared” or closed without charges laid; where complainants are 16 years of age and older; and the alleged perpetrator is over the age of 18 in accordance with Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act. The quarterly reviews act as a safety mechanism, ensuring that after a survivor reports, and their case is cleared without charges, the longest the case would sit closed prior to review is three months. This allows for further investigative potential in cases, a reduced review load for advocates, and real-time information sharing between frontline agencies and police regarding the state of sexual violence in their community.

The fundamental goal of VACR is actually quite simple: to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of police investigations in sexual assault cases by leveraging the trauma-informed lens and expertise of local front-line sexual violence advocates, so police can catch cases which have previously fallen through the cracks of the justice system– cases that have been dismissed during the reporting, investigation, and charging stages.  

We know that only around 5% of sexual assaults are reported to police (according to statistics Canada data in 2014) . The VACR review process helps ensure that everyone who reports is given the same opportunity to access the justice system, be treated with dignity, and can expect their report to be fully investigated, in the hopes of reducing case attrition, the retraumatization of survivors, and potentially fostering trust in the community by policing agencies’ willingness to increase transparency in sexual assault files.

What is VACR?

When asked what VACR is in its most basic sense, our VACR Provincial Coordinator, Kristina explained:

 “It’s frontline violence against women and sexual assault advocates/experts going into the police station to review all sexual assault files “cleared”, or closed without charges on a quarterly basis. It allows advocates to give feedback on what the police are doing well, what they could do better, and specific case recommendations.”

When delving deeper into VACR the role of community support becomes vital to the process. Community involvement and support, through local sexual assault centres and sexual violence experts, is important to ensuring survivors are believed, survivor’s cases are investigated fully, as well as fostering the creation of healthy, safe communities where everyone has access to the reporting process, and other supports should they choose. 

Kristina spoke to the importance of police recognizing that there are local  front-line trauma and sexual assault experts  who understand how sexual violence manifests uniquely in their communities. Front-line, sexual violence subject matter experts support both the 5% of survivors that do report to police, and the 95% that don’t. This allows police to leverage the skills and abilities of their community members. “As more people begin to understand the problematic way ‘we’ve always done things’ regarding the investigation of sexual assault files, they create room for these conversations and a system of transparency”.

How does VACR benefit police?

Implementation of VACR is not only beneficial to survivors. Kristina outlined the positive impacts it can have for police as “the potential to foster trust between the police and the broader community by opening  themselves up to the feedback and showing the community that they know they can do better and are willing to do so.” It also allows advocates to see the police process from the inside and advocate for police, and the tools they need in order to complete thorough sexual assault investigations; this could be anything from policy changes, specialized personnel dedicated solely to sexual violence cases, or increased space or resources to address barriers affecting police ability to collect their best evidence, including private and comfortable interview spaces for survivors. 

If police are able to ensure investigations are able to incorporate known aspects of sexual violence, such as power dymanics, neurobiology of trauma, etc,  it allows them to search out and find their best evidence, improving the quality of their investigations, and thus empowering police to lay charges where their burden of proof is met.

We commend the Regina Police Service for recognizing the gaps in the sexual assault reporting, and investigative processes, as well as their willingness to partner with the Regina Sexual Assault Centre to impliment VACR.  This is a very important step towards creating a future where every person in Saskatchewan is free from threat, fear, and experience of sexual violence. 

How does VACR benefit survivors?

While the review process benefits all those involved, the main focus is on supporting the survivors who choose to access the justice system, and report sexual violence to police. 

When asked how VACR supports survivors the most, Kristina stated that the “benefit to all survivors is that cases don’t continue to disappear over and over again. VACR is a safety net. If someone reports to police, and charges are not laid, they will know that their case will be reviewed by someone with a sexual violence lens, who ensures that their case was investigated to the fullest extent.” 

Furthermore, VACR reviews remove the burden on the individual survivor to fight for their individual case at every step of the criminal justice process, as they can be assured advocates are doing so with every review. Kristina says the Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review “stops survivors from having to take on the whole justice system by themselves.” Because the advocates are experts in how sexual violence affects their community specifically, these reviews also serve as a way to ensure marginalized individuals have the same access to system protections as those with greater resources to self-advocate.

Perhaps most importantly, VACR  establishes a culture of accountability between police, sexual violence advocates, and the communities they serve –ensuring that all those who report can trust that their case will result in thorough and complete investigations. With VACR Kristina states that “these cases won’t just disappear and nobody would know.”

How is it being implemented throughout Saskatchewan?

It is important to note that Saskatchewan is the only province in Canada that has a Sexual Violence Action Plan developed primarily by sexual violence experts and advocates from across the province. Action #19 states the need for “integrated advocate case reviews of police services sexual violence files”.  

Saskatchewan has become a national leader in its implementation of VACR. The support of the Government of Saskatchewan means Regina is the only implementation of VACR where advocates are being compensated for their expert knowledge, and time spent outside of their centres and away from clients. This funding success is eagerly being watched by other provincial governments and advocates, and is being touted as the exemplar for how VACR could be implemented in other jurisdictions. SASS commends the Government of Saskatchewan for its commitment to survivors of sexual violence, and the concrete action made on SASS’ Call #19 of the Sexual Violence Action Plan. 

The next step for VACR in Saskatchewan is to look at how it can be implemented in other provincial jurisdictions.

For more information on Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review in Canada follow them on twitter @SA_CaseReview. For Saskatchewan specific information contact Kristina Kaminski at vaw.sass@sasktel.net or  (306) 757-1945

The Power of Believing The Stories of Survivors

During our research work, we traveled across the province of Saskatchewan and listened to many survivors’ share the reality of their experiences with sexual violence.

One of the recurring themes in our conversations was that many survivors never told anyone about their experience for fear of not being believed. They shared with us that it was one of the main reasons that they didn’t report it or tell a family member or friend what had happened to them. 

Right now, I want you to reflect upon a time in your life when you went through something that was really difficult. Imagine if you didn’t have anyone to share that experience with? Or even worse, the person you told didn’t believe that it happened to you? 

Many survivors of sexual violence are denied the truth about their experience. 

For those of us who have not had a direct experience with sexual violence, it’s hard to comprehend how this could happen to someone. Often, this can lead to developing a stigma or bias about the reality of sexual violence, because we haven’t learned how to support someone through a traumatic experience. 

The thought of sexual violence is fearful in itself so it’s much easier for us to avoid having conversations about it, to ignore the reality that someone we love has experienced it, or to pretend that it isn’t happening at all. 

But it is happening. 

And when we stay silent, we are allowing the stories of survivors’ to remain silent too. 

So now, it is our time to stand with survivors. To be courageous with them in the face of what feels like the unimaginable, because when we do, something powerful happens. 

We raise the voices of those who have long been silenced and we remind them that their power has always been theirs to hold even in the moments when it feels like it has been completely taken away. 

We validate the truth about their experiences and we let them know that it was never their fault, that they are loved, that they are worthy, and that despite it all, they have survived. 

Right now, imagine that the survivor you have chosen to stand with is your mother, your father, your daughter, your son, your sister, your brother, your partner, or your best friend. 

Imagine that they are standing in front of you and you are looking in their eyes and you say, “I believe you.” 

You have the power to change the story about sexual violence by saying those three words. 

Will you?

Here’s how you can create a safe space for a survivor to share their story: http://sassk.ca/how-to-respond-to-a-sexual-assault-disclosure/

Why Survivors’ Stories Aren’t Getting The Attention They Deserve

We’ve heard this story over and over again.

A survivor speaks out about their experience with sexual assault or abuse and isn’t believed. 

They aren’t believed by their family or friends.
They aren’t believed by the community they live in.
They aren’t believed by law enforcement.
They aren’t believed by medical professionals. 

There is a long line of disbelief that is often attached to a survivor’s story. 

What we’ve learned from our research is that it’s not that survivors’ stories aren’t being told, it’s that when they are told, a blanket of disbelief is thrown over them in efforts to cover up the truth and keep the survivor’s experience hidden, silent, and non-existent. 

This blanket of disbelief is made up of barriers. Barriers are people, places, systems, and environments that either indirectly or directly affect the validity of the survivors’ experience. 

It takes what is already a traumatizing experience and layers on even more trauma that comes along with the grief, shame, and guilt many survivors carry with them because they are denied the support they need to heal themselves from a sexual assault or abuse incident. 

Many of these barriers are deeply rooted in systems and institutions that work against individuals who don’t have access to safe and inclusive spaces that are able to provide them with trauma-informed care. 

Eliminating these barriers will take a great deal of change. The kind of change that can only be made by large groups of people and communities coming together to demand that action be taken on what we know isn’t working and hasn’t been working for a very long time. 

When we think about ending sexual violence, it feels as though it has become such an overwhelming and at times impossible challenge. Survivors, advocates, and front-line workers are exhausted from carrying the weight of an issue that is often dismissed, ignored, and not believed. 

That is why it is so important for us on the sidelines to step in, to help out, and to contribute. 

One of the main barriers that survivors experience is a lack of access to free or affordable counselling that is provided by sexual assault centres or multi-service organizations that offer sexual-violence related counselling. 

Many of these organizations in Saskatchewan are currently experiencing waitlists that are up to 6 months long due to a lack of funding that would provide the resources needed to keep up with the demand for sexual violence counselling in our province. 

The simplest contribution you can make right now is to donate to one of these organizations or volunteer your time to help out with crisis call lines. 

Out of all the barriers that exist, one of the most significant is not having a safe space to share stories about sexual assault and abuse with someone that will believe the survivor. 

By giving back to the organizations that provide safe spaces for survivors, we can all do our part in changing the story about sexual violence and help raise the voices of survivors who have been denied the truth. 
Here’s a list of organizations to donate to or volunteer for across Saskatchewan:

For more information about the barriers that exist for survivors, read our research here: http://sassk.ca/

No Story Left Untold: A Sexual Assault Awareness Campaign Sharing Voices, Stories, Insights, and Actions from the Front-Lines.

This week is Sexual Assault Awareness Week. 

A week dedicated to raising awareness for sexual violence through public education recognized and proclaimed by the Ministry of Justice. 

This year’s theme, “No Story Left Untold” focuses on sharing voices, stories, insights, and actions from the front-lines. 

Everything that will be shared with you throughout the week is a reflection of the work captured in the research report released on April 29 in partnership with SASS, CUISR, and FSIN.  

A focal point of the research was the stories shared from survivors across Saskatchewan that shed light on the reality of their experiences with sexual violence. 

Over the course of this week, through the theme “No Story Left Untold”, we will share voices of survivors, speak to the importance of believing their stories and advocate for the removal of barriers that limit stories from being told. 

It is our hope, that raising awareness for sexual violence through survivor stories, will help you better understand the complexities of sexual assault and abuse by showing you that survivors are people like you. Although their experiences may be different than yours, we have all gone through something in our lives that has been difficult or devastating. 

Speaking up for and taking action against sexual violence is not an easy thing to do. It is much easier to pretend that it’s not happening and avoid having the uncomfortable conversations and interactions with others about sexual violence. 

The truth is, we really don’t want people to be in pain, but we spend a lot of time keeping people in painful circumstances and situations because we think we can’t do anything about it. 

But we can. 

The first step is having the courage to say, “I am willing to help and I am willing to believe.” 

The second step is having the courage to do something about it, in whatever way you can. 

Throughout this week, we will be sharing what we have learned through our research with you in hopes that it will inspire you to move, to take action, and to call for change.

Together, we can make a difference in the lives of those who have experienced sexual violence. 

Please join us in spreading the message of #nostoryleftuntold from May 11-15 to stand with the voices of survivors and take action to help change the story about sexual violence. 

Government of Saskatchewan proclaims Sexual Assault Awareness Week

Proclamation Certificate

SEXUAL VIOLENCE IN SASKATCHEWAN: VOICES, STORIES, INSIGHTS, AND ACTIONS FROM THE FRONT LINES

Three years ago, we partnered with the Community-Institute for Social Research to conduct an extensive study of sexual violence in Saskatchewan. On April 29, 2020 the report, Sexual Violence in Saskatchewan: Voices, Stories, Insights, and Actions from the Front Lines, was released to the public in collaboration with the Community-University Institute for Social Research at the University of Saskatchewan, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Women’s Secretariat, and the Saskatchewan First Nation Women’s Commission.

The research aims to provide a comprehensive understanding of sexual violence in our province through individual esperiences and an examination of the strengths, gaps, and barriers in services. We thank all those who participated in this study for their strength, resilience, compassion, and determination for change. 

Below is an overview of some of the key findings from the report including who is being assaulted, who they perpetrators are, and barriers that exist for reporting and support: 

Who is being assaulted?

Statistics Canada states that one in three women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. However, Saskatchewan currently has one of the highest rates of sexual violence across the country. Our research findings reinforce that women are more likely to experience sexual violence (88.35%) and suggest that the majority of assaualts occurred between the ages of 13 and 23. 

Populations including Indigenous youth, 2SLGBTQ+ individuals, and those living in rural and remote communities are significantly more vulnerable to sexual victimization.

Who are the perpetrators?

Survivors under the age of 18 years were most likely to be assaulted by someone they knew such as a family member, an acquaintance, or a friend. These assaults happened most frequently in their homes and schools.

Adults reported being assaulted most often by intimate partners, acquaintances, and intimate strangers. 

Reporting and Supports

Over 70% of participants told someone about the assault, however, only 23% reported to police. Instead, survivors sought support primarily from friends, family members, and counsellors. If a disclosure was not made within three days following the assault, survivors often did not disclose for at least two years.

The reasons given for not formally reporting to police or RCMP included:

  • fear of not being believed 
  • fear of being blamed for the assault, shame and embarrassment
  • fear of retaliation from perpetrator or perpetrator’s network
  • anonymity concerns 
  • lack of understanding that the violations were crimes
  • lack of trust of law enforcement’s ability to handle sexual assault cases
  • fear of the criminal court process

Survivors were most satisfied recieving support from sexual assault and mental health counsellors and were least satisfied following experiences with police and the justice system. 

Survivors also identified various barriers to accessing services including:

  • anonymity concerns 
  • previous negative experiences with service providers
  • lack of transportation 
  • poverty 
  • shame and being blamed for the assault
  • homophobia and lack of inclusive services
  • lack of support from friends and family
  • lack of services for minors and youth
  • lack of Indigenous services
  • internalized beliefs
  • mental illness
  • being told that the assault was not legitimate
  • fear of retaliation
  • limited operating hours for services

If you or someone you know is in need of support, visit our website to find counselling and support services in your community. 

Press Release

Executive Summary

Full Report

*This study has been funded by the Women and Gender Equality Canada’s Women’s Program.

How to Become a First Responder to Sexual Assault and Abuse

According to Statistics Canada, 1 in 3 women and 1 in 6 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.

While survivors of sexual assault are disproportionately women, the reality is that sexual assault can happen to any person, any age, no matter their gender or ethnicity. Sexual assault happens every day and most frequently in homes of friends, families and co-workers.

85% of survivors are assaulted by someone they know.

Because of the relational and personal nature of this crime, survivors often live in silence and shame. Dominant societal myths about sexual assault reinforce the misconceptions that survivors are responsible for the crimes that have been committed against them. This further contributes to very low reporting rates to law enforcement, and results in survivors not reaching out for medical or counselling assistance.

Survivors who receive safe and supportive responses to disclosures of sexual violence are more likely to reach out to medical and counselling services or report to police.

With the support from the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services (AASAS) and our funder, the Ministry of Justice, we have implemented the First Responder to Sexual Assault and Abuse Training™ in Saskatchewan.

The First Responder to Sexual Assault and Abuse Training™ is a two-day course designed to educate individuals about the social, cultural and legal aspects of sexual assault and abuse, which will enable them to recognize, define and respond appropriately to the continuum of behaviours that constitute sexual assault and abuse.

The First Responder to Sexual Assault and Abuse Training™ benefits professionals, paraprofessionals, and community members who are interested in increasing their knowledge and skills to address disclosures of sexual violence.

The training is designed to aid those who work with individuals who have, or are at risk of, experiencing sexual violence. This includes, but is not limited to, those working in the fields of Physical and Mental Health, Justice, Social Work, and Education.

Individuals who have been trained in Saskatchewan include: Elders and Religious Leaders, University Students, Crisis Workers, Teachers, Nurses, Police and RCMP, Army Support Workers, Tribal Councils and Family Court Mediators.

Through the First Responder to Sexual Assault and Abuse Training™, our goal is to build capacity for professionals, volunteers, and community members throughout Saskatchewan to assess and respond effectively to disclosures of sexual assault and abuse. This should help ensure that those who have experienced sexual violence reach out for the help they need, and that they are provided with resources and empathy after disclosing.

If you’re interested in learning more about The First Responder to Sexual Assault and Abuse Training™ and where to register for training in Saskatchewan, click here.


Resource References

Statistic Canada 2013 Report:
www.statcan.gc.ca, Association of Albert Sexual Assault Services:
www.aasas.ca

What is Sexual Violence?

What is Sexual Violence?

Sexual violence is a wide-ranging term that encompasses actions or expressions that are sexual in nature and targets a person’s sexuality, gender identity, or expression.

Sexual violence crimes include unwanted sexual contact, attempts to obtain a sexual act, non-consensual sexual activity, unwanted sexual comments or advances and non-contact sexual experiences that happen without freely and enthusiastically given consent.

The act of committing a sexual violence crime is not about sex itself, but rather of control and power. The person who commits the sexual assault is always 100% responsible for the act of violence

Here is a glossary of key terms that will help you gain a better understanding for the language surrounding sexual violence:


Sexual Assault

Sexual Assault refers to any act of a sexual nature carried out in circumstances in which an individual has not freely agreed or consented. Sexual assault includes unwanted physical contact of a sexual nature from unwanted kissing and touching to forced sexual intercourse and/or oral sex.


Sexual Harassment

Sexual Harassment is any unwanted sexual communication or attention that is offensive, intimidating or humiliating, whether in verbal, written or visual form. This may include psychological violence, verbal abuse, manipulation and coercion.

Gender-based Violence (GBV)


Gender-based violence (GBV) involves the use and abuse of power and control over another person and is perpetrated against someone based on their gender identity, gender expression or perceived gender.  Violence against women and girls is one form of GBV.  It also has a disproportionate impacts on LGBTQ2 (lesbian, gay, bisexual, trangender, queer, questioning, intersex and two-spirit) and gender-non-conforming people.  GBV includes emotional and pscyhological violence, such as intentional misgendering, intentional “outing”, and use of gendered slurs, as well as physical, sexual, and structural or systemic violence. 

Interpersonal Violence

Interpersonal Violence can also be referred to as Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) and Domestic Violence, it is the abuse of power and control within a past or current relationship that endangers the well-being, security or survival of another person. Interpersonal Violence can occur in all types of relationships (e.g., dating, long-term, common-law, marriage, etc.). It can also occur between roommates and close friends.

IPV commonly starts off as emotional and/or verbal aggression or abuse, and can occasionally lead to acts of physical violence. An abusive partner will use different forms of violence to maintain control in their relationship or a sense of power over their partner.


Sexual Consent

Sexual Consent is to voluntary agree, free from coercion, to engage in sexual activity. Consent must be given whenever a sexual activity is proposed. When a person consents to a sexual activity, that consent will not automatically carry over to future sexual practices. Consent to one act does not mean agreeing to all sexual acts. Consent can be withdrawn at any time. A person is not capable of consenting to sexual activity when that person is incapacitated by alcohol or drugs, is unconscious, or where a person abuses a relationship of trust, power, or authority (e.g. between a professor and their student).


Coercion


A tactic used to intimidate, trick or force someone to have sex without resorting to physical force. Some examples of coercion are:

  • Constantly putting pressure on someone and refusing to take no for an answer.
  • Implying sex is owed in return for financial favors, such as buying dinner, drinks or gifts.
  • Making someone feel guilty for not engaging in sex (“if you loved me you would…”).
  • Continually buying alcohol to inebriate the other person(s).
  • Being emotionally manipulative (“I can’t live without you…”).

 Disclosure


Disclosure is the act of making new information known for the purpose of seeking support and/or information to a friend, family member, medical professional, or mental health professional such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Report

Reporting is the act of informing someone in authority of an incident for the purpose of initiating an investigative process.

 Survivor/Victim

Survivor/Victim are terms used to refer to a person who was sexually assaulted. In the 70’s and 80’s, advocates and activists in North America who worked to support those who have been sexually assaulted encouraged moving away from the term “victim” to the term “survivor”. Now most commonly used in North-America, the term “survivor” generally focuses on agency and resilience whereas “victim” refers to the person being victimized by someone else and focuses on elements outside of a person’s control.

Victim Blaming

Victim Blaming is the act of blaming the occurrence of sexual assault on the survivor instead of the person who committed the sexual assault.

To learn more about language surrounding Sexual Violence, read the full glossary of terms here: https://www.mcgill.ca/osvrse/about-sexual-violence/glossary