It’s April 2016, and it’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month. This year has been about a social movement around supporting victims, including the hashtag #IBelieveSurvivors on Twitter and unprecedented media coverage. Jian Ghomeshi, Bill Cosby, and many other high-profile cases involving sexual assault have people talking about sexual assault. But what is really being done to support victims of this particular crime? For us, it’s not a hashtag, a news story or a passing interest. Like our community partners, we are invested in this issue. We work to help those who are living in a new reality because they have been sexually assaulted. For us, it’s no joke.
A NATIONAL CONVERSATION
Anyone who has watched the news over the last few months has heard at least a bit about the trial of Jian Ghomeshi, the former CBC host who was accused by over 20 women of harassment, violent behavior and sexual assault. The outcome of this trial has sparked a national conversation around sexual assault, the justice system, and consent. One common question has been: Who is standing up for victims of sexual assault? The police, the Crown, the Justice presiding? All of these people have vital roles to play, but their mandate does not include direct support for the victim. In Alberta, Victim Services Units fill this gap by supporting victims of sexual assault and their families every step of the way – from the first day of reporting to police right through the court process and beyond.
HOW CAN WE HELP?
Victim Services Units are involved with supporting victims of sexual assault (and any other type of crime) from the moment they report to the police. We maintain contacts in our communities with counseling services, mental health assessments, social services, and even economic services, and we guide victims to the help that they need. Financial benefits are available to victims through the Victims of Crime Fund, and some are eligible even if no charges have been laid. We assist victims with the paperwork to help them get the compensation they deserve.
GOING TO COURT
Once a charge is laid against an accused person, Victim Services works with the police (in our case, the RCMP) and the Crown to be a voice for the victim and to keep them updated. In many cases, the most empowering thing for a victim is information – on what is happening with their case, the court proceedings, and what happens after court. Victim Services Units are the link to the victim and we focus on providing timely information on their cases. Victim Services will also work with victims during court preparation. This is an important part of our services, as most people do not have experience navigating the justice system. We are familiar with the courts and can help victims understand what to expect and how the process works. Victim Services staff will even accompany the victim and/or their family to court to provide support and information throughout the proceedings. The Victim Impact Statement is another important piece of court as it is the victim’s opportunity to have their voice heard.
BARRIERS TO REPORTING
Unfortunately, in our communities and across Canada, the majority of victims of sexual assault do not report the crime to the police. They may stay silent, confide in a friend or family member, or even seek professional help, but many are frightened by the idea of reporting to the police. This means that our services are only accessed by a fraction of the people who could really use them.
WE ARE HERE FOR YOU
To anyone who has been victimized, please know: there are people in the justice system that will advocate for you, support you, and provide you with information and resources. We can’t make any promises about the results of the investigation or court proceedings, but we can promise you that your voice will be heard, that someone will care, and that we will stand beside you through it all. We know that sexual assault is no joke, and that it can completely change a victim’s life. We are here for you!