Wednesday, 17 March 2010
9 out of 10 rapes go unreported
Earlier this week a wide-ranging review was published into the way rape investigations are conducted and complainants are treated by police.
It made for shocking reading as Baroness Stern, the review’s author, found as many as nine out of ten rapes and attempted rapes go unreported.
One of the main reasons for this, the review found, was reluctance on the part of victims to reveal intimate details of their personal lives before going to court.
Having to re-live such a traumatic experience through various police interviews, and then again in court is something many people feel unable to do. If the detective handling the case is insensitive or unsympathetic, or judges a woman because of her clothes, or intoxicants she may take, or appears not to believe her, that ordeal is made even worse. Such insensitivity or judgementalism can be dangerous, as it means many perpetrators of sex crimes are getting away scot-free and rapists are being allowed to go on and rape again.
Baroness Stern argues that there is too much emphasis on achieving a conviction. After speaking to victims, she concluded what was really important: "...was really important was not in the end if they could get a conviction; what they said was, we still feel we want to be believed."
Stern wants the expansion of Sexual Abuse Referral Centres (SARCs) to every police force in England and Wales, forensic evidence to be gathered by the NHS rather than the police and a network of professional, independent advisors to support a victim through each stage of the criminal process.
If the recommendations of Baroness Stern are to be implemented, there is a chance that some of the embarrassment and emotional trauma of reporting a rape or sexual offence will be taken away. This can only be a good thing; not only for the well-being of complainants, but for justice and the safety of our communities too.
However, I would like to see reform go further. When I worked as probation officer, I worked with far too many people who had been raped or sexually abused, often as children, but who had never had any counselling or support often, but not always, because it had gone unreported. In such circumstances, some people find it impossible to come to terms with what has happened and can seek ways of blocking traumatic memories out with drink or drugs, which can then lead to falling foul of the law. There should be some sort of system to provide suppport for such people, should they need that support straight away or years after the abuse has taken place.
Dr Nicole Westmarland, a lecturer in criminology at Durham University and former chair of Rape Crisis (England and Wales), has identified a number of other improvements that could be made. A key element of Dr Westmarland’s recommendations is an improvement in evidence gathering to reduce the risk of rape cases being dismissed as one person’s word against another. Dr Westmarland's views deserve serious consideration - they could enhance the recommendations of Baroness Stern.
Such fundamental changes won’t happen overnight, but the authorities must ensure they are implemented as quickly as possible in the name of justice and decency.