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

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