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New RCMP unit in Fort McMurray to help victims of sexual assault and domestic violence

The Wood Buffalo RCMP has brought in a new unit to focus on investigations into sexual assault and domestic violence. 

'If a lot of our clients feel that they're being heard, that's ... the win for our unit,' says RCMP corporal

The Wood Buffalo RCMP started the Specialized Investigative Unit in January. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

The Wood Buffalo RCMP has a new unit focused on investigations into sexual assault and domestic violence. 

The Specialized Investigative Unit (SIU) started in January 2022 and was pioneered by Cpl. Miranda Williams. 

The unit reviews sexual assault files that come to the detachment. Williams said the unit will either support the officers investigating the file or take over the investigation if the incident is more complicated.

The unit is made up of one corporal and six constables.

Williams said she worked on bringing in improvements for years, after reviewing domestic violence files and seeing gaps.

She made a pitch for an SIU unit out of Fort McMurray after seeing a successful program from Grande Prairie.

"I wanted those investigations to be better and to do better for the clients," said Williams.

The unit has so far worked on 39 sexual contact offence cases and 350 intimate partner violence files. 

"I think we can all agree that sometimes the justice system doesn't bring the closure that people expect, but if a lot of our clients feel that they're being heard, that's … the win for our unit," said Williams. She said victims have already told her of their positive experiences with the unit. 

Cpl. Miranda Williams brought the SIU to life. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Williams said because of the unit's support with these cases, the evidence they are gathering when laying charges is stronger.

Janine Keagan, sexual assault program manager for Waypoints community services, said she's glad that the RCMP noticed the need for the unit, as sexual violence is prevalent and under-reported.

We're seeing a real safety crisis.- Janine Keagan

The Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services released a study in 2020 that found that an estimated 1.8 million Albertans have experienced some form of sexual abuse.

The report also found about one-in-three children had experienced sexual abuse. 

Keagan said sexual violence is linked to physical and mental illnesses, sexual exploitation, substance use disorders and domestic violence. 

"We're seeing a real safety crisis in our communities right now because there are only three to five per cent of people who are reporting... Statistics are showing 95 per cent of perpetrators are living in our community and aren't being held accountable," said Keagan. 

Janine Keagan is the sexual assault program manager for Waypoints. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

In the last year, Waypoints sexual assault program has seen a 14 per cent increase in new clients and an increase of 40 per cent in Indigenous people accessing their services.

She wants to see the RCMP get more training so they can understand what victims are going through and how to work with them. 

"I really hope … that survivors are believed," said Keagan. 

Williams is hoping to see better conviction rates as the program continues. She would also like to work with the Sexual Assault Response Team through AHS, and bring the program to Fort McMurray. 

Ideally, Williams said she would like to see the program expand to the point where SIU would be able to investigate all sexual assaults and domestic violence cases from the start. And she wants more training for RCMP members on trauma-informed techniques.

"It's not a lofty goal," she said. "I think all of that is something we can accomplish."

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