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Growing sexual assault caseload spurs Grande Prairie prosecutor to better prepare victims

Grande Prairie's chief Crown prosecutor, Steven Hinkley, is offering free workshops to help frontline workers better guide sexual assault victims through the criminal justice system.

'This requirement for education of frontline people just kept crying out to me. This is what I chose to do'

The two-hour workshops usually fill up weeks in advance, said Steven Hinkley, Grande Prairie's chief Crown prosecutor. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

A rise in the number of sexual assault cases has prompted Grande Prairie's chief Crown prosecutor to offer free workshops for the people who work most closely with victims.

The hope is the workshops will enable frontline workers to help victims better navigate Alberta's criminal justice system, while also improving its efficiency, said Steven Hinkley.

"What I'm trying to avoid is people not knowing what to expect and having what is already a traumatic experience be worse for them," Hinkley said.

"For someone who has experienced trauma, I don't want them to continue to experience it as their expectations are not met."

He developed the two-hour course based on nearly a decade of experience as a chief Crown prosecutor, first in Fort McMurray and then in Grande Prairie.

Since moving to Grande Prairie in 2012, Hinkley said he has seen an uptick in sexual assault cases he handles, especially following the #MeToo movement which launched in 2017.

The workshop is a made-in-Grande-Prairie solution to better prepare the growing number of complainants for the courtroom, he said.

Victims often reach out to a social service agency before contacting police, which is why the course caters to frontline workers, Hinkley added.

"This requirement for education of frontline people just kept crying out to me," Hinkley said. "I needed to do something about it and this is what I chose to do.

"What I want people to know is the practicalities of navigating the criminal justice system."

Hinkley teaches the workshops in his spare time. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

The initial workshop in February was intended as a one-time event. When its 15 spaces filled up weeks in advance, Hinkley decided to schedule regular courses.

In each session, taught by Hinkley in his spare time, frontline workers are advised on what to do with evidence, when to involve law enforcement and how to best support victims at court.

By smoothing the legal process, Hinkley said he hopes to reduce the strain on people who decide to come forward with sexual assault allegations.

'Eye-opening' for frontline workers

Hinkley has taught three courses since launching his initiative, with a fourth planned for June 1.

"For somebody who is working at an agency that deals with sexual violence, there are things that I didn't know," said Buffy MacIntosh. "It was really eye-opening for me."

MacIntosh, who attended a workshop last month, works as a fund development coordinator for the Pace Community Support, Sexual Assault, and Trauma Centre.

The centre hosts Hinkley's workshops at its Grande Prairie office.

Waitlists at the centre doubled in the months after the #MeToo movement gained momentum on social media late last year, she said.

Although staff are trained to support sexual assault victims emotionally, she said many struggle to extend that support into the courtroom.

"A lot of times we sort of make assumptions that people who are working on the frontlines have that kind of training and education," MacIntosh said.

"Steven is providing a really valuable service," she said.

Waitlists at the PACE Sexual Assault Centre in Grande Prairie more than doubled in length after the #MeToo movement, said Fund Development Coordinator Buffy MacIntosh. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

Laurie Emin, with Native Counselling Services of Alberta, plans to sign up for the upcoming course in June.

As a criminal youth court worker, she helps both victims and offenders make sense of the criminal justice system. This means she deals with staff at Hinkley's office almost daily.

"Lawyers are busy, they don't have time to explain even to their own client (what) is going on," Emin said.

Despite her constant interaction with Grande Prairie's prosecutors, Emin said the course will fill gaps in her knowledge.

"This course would be very important to me because there might be things that I'm not doing or forgetting that would help me better be here for the victim."

It's too soon to tell if the workshops are making a difference but Hinkley said he will continue offering them for as long as there is a demand.

The course will help frontline workers better serve sexual assault victims, said Laurie Emin, a criminal youth court worker with Native Counselling Services of Alberta. (Zoe Todd/CBC)

About the Author

Zoe Todd

Video Journalist

Zoe Todd is a CBC video journalist based in Alberta, filing videos and stories for web, radio and TV.