Sexual assault survivors embrace 3rd-party reporting in Manitoba

Dozens of sexual assault survivors in Manitoba have opted for third-party reporting since it became available nearly two years ago.

'Third-party reporting is really another opportunity to give choices back to survivors'

Klinic health centre is one of three community agencies where sexual assault survivors can opt for third-party reporting. (Google Street View)

Dozens of sexual assault survivors in Manitoba have opted for third-party reporting since it became available nearly two years ago.

Klinic Community Health alone has received reports from some 30 people, said Jerra Fraser, a counsellor with the sexual assault crisis program at the centre on Portage Avenue near Vimy Ridge Park.

"It's been positive in terms of feedback around feeling supported in a system that they know other survivors are accessing and that has been empowering," she said.

"Allowing folks to share their story in this way has been therapeutic."

Since April 2018, sexual assault survivors have been able to anonymously report abuse to any one of three different community health agencies — Klinic, Sage House at Mount Carmel Clinic and Heart Medicine Lodge at Ka Ni Kanichihk.

It gives survivors the opportunity to talk in a setting designed to be less intimidating than it might be to speak to authorities, "especially following an event that can produce really significant feelings of shame, fear, self-doubt, self blame, uncertainty and guilt," Fraser said.

Since April 2018, sexual assault survivors have been able to anonymously report abuse through the third-party option. (Google Street View)

Sexual assault remains one of the most under-reported crimes because of the shame and stigma surrounding it, so the third-party option is aimed at being a middle ground between taking it directly to police or not doing anything at all, she said. Statistics Canada's general social survey suggests in 2014, only five per cent of sexual assaults were reported to police.

Under third-party reporting, the clinic passes on information about the assault to police, who can use it to possibly identify offenders or trends.

For example, if several people report sexual assaults concentrated in a certain neighbourhood, or if the abuser drives a certain vehicle, that information could be spotted as a pattern in the database for investigators to pursue.

The important thing to note is that the person who made the report is always in charge of the file, Fraser said. Klinic will not give police their name unless they are authorized to do so.

Those who report to the community partners are not officially reporting a crime, so no formal investigation will take place until the survivor makes that choice.

If police do become aware of a pattern from the information they have been given, they might reach out to the community partner, who can ask the survivor if they would like to speak with law enforcement, Fraser said.

"Third-party reporting is really another opportunity to give choices back to survivors following an event that took a sense of control, choice and power away. So really it can feel like an empowering intervention."

In an emailed statement, the Winnipeg Police Service sex crimes unit said it has wholeheartedly welcomed the third-party approach as an alternative way to report incidents.

"It allows victims a voice and another way of reporting. Although most victims don't generally come forward, there has been one individual who did, which led to an arrest," the statement said.

Sexual assault and the #MeToo movement have been top of mind for many this week as jury selection began in New York City for the sexual assault trial of disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein.

The trial is on charges that Weinstein, 67, raped a woman in a Manhattan hotel room in 2013 and forcibly performed a sex act on another woman in the city in 2006.

The same day in Los Angeles, prosecutors filed charges against Weinstein for allegedly sexually assaulting two women there on successive nights during Oscar week in 2013.

Weinstein, once one of Hollywood's most powerful producers, has been accused of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct by dozens of women, from famous actresses to assistants at his former company. The allegations began surfacing publicly in October 2017 and sparked the #MeToo movement, as well as investigations in multiple places.

Fraser acknowledged that sexual assault survivors — unconnected to Weinstein — could find the coverage of the trial and new charges triggering.

"I would always encourage people to be really aware of how we're still, unfortunately, immersed in this victim-blaming culture, and if they do have feelings of self-blame come up, that's a really normal sexual assault trauma response," she said.

"They should know that this in no way was their fault and that there are folks out there who, if and when they're ready, are happy to walk them through … [and] they're really going to be in control of what happens next."