Careful process to build jigsaw for conviction

AMY MAAS
Last updated 05:00 15/12/2013

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The first step a victim of sexual abuse has to take is telling their story to police.

A report released by the Ministry of Women's Affairs in 2009 found between 2005 and 2007, 31 per cent of all recorded cases reported to police resulted in charges being laid. Of those, 13 per cent resulted in a conviction. Those are just the reported crimes.

Sexual-violence figures show for every 100 people sexually assaulted, only seven will complain to police. Three will get their cases heard in court. Just one will see their attacker convicted. To do that, a victim needs relive the account - whether it happened last night or 20 years ago.

Specialist sexual assault police staff, such as Detective Senior Sergeant Neil Holden and the detectives based at Koru House in Wellington - a multi-agency child abuse centre which also deals with adult sexual assault cases - will use various pieces of information to build a complicated jigsaw.

"We don't go into great detail, it's very important a person isn't asked "why". We don't even ask questions around how. We just don't need all those nitty-gritty details at that point," Holden said.

Police then assess whether there is a need for a victim to undergo a medical examination for forensic purposes, whether a scene with evidence needs to be secured and whether witnesses may be at risk.

They also work with other agencies that provide support for sexual abuse survivors, such as HELP, and doctors to ensure victims are supported along the way.

Every complaint automatically prompts a call to HELP, or similar organisations, whose counsellors will meet the victim at the police station.

Lack of resources means this support is limited across the country, and some smaller centres have to rely on Victim Support workers.

Police and a support person will "hand-hold" the victim through any medical examinations. A counsellor will also talk the victim through the process and let the victim know that it is within their power put a stop to it at any time.

Aimee Stockenstroom, crisis services manager for HELP, said it was important to help victims feel empowered to make that decision.

"While it's a police-led process, it's very much a survivor-driven focus," she said.

"We want to make sure that they know they have choices along the way and that they know what their rights are. Sometimes the person may not be ready to make a formal statement," she said.

If the victim decides to press ahead, a formal interview will be recorded and may be used as evidence if the case goes to court. But in many cases there might not be enough evidence.

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"The best outcome is from victim to survivor. A conviction is just one outcome, but you've still got to look forward to what can help you in life so that it doesn't destroy your life."

Holden added that was difficult to bring about long-term change in sexual violence as it went to the core of some human behaviours.

"We know how dangerous sexual-violence predators are and we can also actually misinterpret sexual events that can have people feel really wronged where it may not have been intended as a wrong.

"So we have a process where that can be appeased, for the victim/survivors but also for that person who believes they haven't done anything wrong or not intentionally done anything wrong."

SOFT ROUTE TO THE HARD FACTS

Constable Sherril Adams is not allowed to touch, comfort or encourage you. She is a police specialist victim interviewer and her job is to listen to victims of rape tell their stories. She explains her role performed in trying circumstances

I am a full-time interviewer. I'm actually a constable, I went from being front-line to youth aid to this, and I did the training as a resource to the area.

It isn't everybody's cup of tea to do this full time, but it's a total privilege and it takes a lot of focus. It's not something you can do lightly.

Sometimes I almost liken it to someone going on stage - you only do it once, make sure you do it well.

I don't have any relationship with the person at all before they get here. I receive information that gives such a basic coverage of what's happened, it might entail two or three lines. We usually set the time for an interview around 9.30am . . . people do better in the morning.

The victim will normally be picked up by the detective who is following that case and they will be brought out here [to Koru House, a purpose-built care facility in Wellington for victims of abuse].

It's very rare for them not to be accompanied by somebody from a support agency, like HELP. This three-way relationship is so much healthier because we're not here to nurture them along, we're just here to do the job.

I meet them at the door but leave them with the HELP support person until they're ready to talk. Then I'll go in and just start on a soft topic.

Some people don't want to talk about anything else but other people are willing to talk about their pets.

You've got to be very careful to gauge that without being condescending. You build a relationship, no matter how long it takes.

I then give the victim an outline of how the day will go. They're shown the room where they'll be interviewed in and then they're shown the adjacent room where the detective will be watching the interview on a screen.

We're doing two things in that interview room - one is getting evidence and another is making a recording that could possibly be used as evidence in court.

I tell them we'll take breaks when they want, there's no limit. They can use any language they want. It isn't a sanitised interview. If they want to describe a body part that's an unusual choice of words, that's OK as well.

We talk about the importance of the depth of description, and that it's important that if there's something they don't know, that's OK, it's not a memory test. They can tell the story however they want, there's no pressure to give anything sequentially. It's called free recall.

There's an enormous amount of information that builds up - pictures, dynamics, emotions, what's going on. Then we explore the recall, what happened.

Once we're finished with the recall, I might use an example, "so you remember being in the back of a car". And I will say, "I really want you to focus on that. Take your time and think that through."

I really want to get them into what we call context reinstatement so that they can start talking about the things they hear and feel. Ultimately it's almost as if you can imagine being there.

Sometimes I put a piece of paper in front of them and say, "While you're talking me through that, could you sketch that?". It's very non-threatening and it's not just this face-to-face dialogue.

In the use of language, obviously you have to talk about physical body parts, and if somebody said, "he touched me down there", that's not going to cut it. You have to be, from a police point of view, very clear about that.

Tears are OK. If somebody is really emotional I can't be seen to acknowledge that. I remain very neutral. When I first started, I remember brushing their arm and realised I can't actually do that. I can't be seen to be encouraging or rewarding their behaviour. So my questioning is all, describe, show, explain, tell.

An interview can last between two and five hours. It's quite draining because you have a huge responsibility to do a good job. You leave no stone unturned and the victim also has to feel good about having told their story.

You don't want them to leave feeling stripped of their dignity or that their character was assassinated. If somebody used drugs, was drunk, or were wearing certain clothing, that's not in question. They must never gloss it over or leave it out, they need to know they can talk freely.

What comes from that interview is what happened, where they were, lines of inquiry like locations, money spent, what happened before, where they were. All of that builds a picture for police to piece together.

Every time I've received a referral from a detective, I'm always amazed by their professionalism. Some of the complaints on the surface are potentially quite trivial, but they're never treated that way.

Regardless of whether it's a gang rape or somebody touching inappropriately, it's dealt with the same level of sincerity.

Please come forward. You will be taken seriously.

- As told to Amy Maas

- Sunday Star Times

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