More seeking help after sexual assaults, but most not reported to police: Regina Sexual Assault Centre
'Sexual assault is the most under-reported violent crime in Canada' says new Stats Can report
More people in Regina are seeking help after sexual assaults but most aren't reporting the assaults to the police, according to an organization that works with victims of sexual assault and abuse.
"Between last year and this year we've seen a significant increase in people seeking counselling services from us," said Lisa Miller, executive director at the Regina Sexual Assault Centre.
"The majority of people that we see here for counselling services have not reported it to police."
Miller said there are several reasons why people are getting help, including increased public awareness and media attention — such as the Globe and Mail's Unfounded series, which looked at how police investigate sexual assault — and high-profile sexual assault cases.
But her concerns about under-reporting are backed up by a newly released report from Statistics Canada looking at police-reported sexual assaults between 2009 and 2014.
"Sexual assault is the most under-reported violent crime in Canada," according to the report. It says there were 117,238 sexual assaults reported by police in Canada over the six-year period.
But the report notes that "it must be understood that any analysis of sexual assault that is based exclusively on crimes reported by police represents a fraction of the true extent of sexual assaults in Canada."
There are many reasons why victims don't report to the police, but one of the main reasons is the way police have historically handled sexual assault cases, Miller said.
"When we see, unfortunately, how some areas of the justice system treat people who have experienced sexual violence, it's not really conducive to reporting," she said.
A spokesperson for the Regina Police Service, Elizabeth Popowich, said officers are trained on how to handle sensitive cases — such as those dealing with sexual assault — starting in Police College.
She said specialized training is offered to investigators in the vice unit, which handles the most serious of sexual assault investigations, and family services, which deals with the abuse of children. Officers are also enrolled in week-long in-service training sessions throughout their careers and take advanced interview courses.
"We know it can be very intrusive when we ask many questions that deal with very personal disclosures," said Popowich. "We have to be mindful of the victim's responses and what they may indicate in terms of need for other supports."
Sexual assault victims are permitted to bring a support person to accompany them during police interviews. People can report such cases through third-party agencies like the Sexual Assault Centre if they choose.
Popowich said officers usually help victims get to the hospital first, where their mental and physical states are addressed. All violent offences are referred to the victim services unit.
RPS officers are now actively involved in presentations within schools on sexual violence, intoxication and consent.
"We want to be on the proactive side of preventing sexual assault from happening, as well as active, sensitive and compassionate in our response when the crime and trauma occur," Popowich said.
The Statistics Canada report says that most victims knew the person who attacked them. In cases where a perpetrator was charged by police, more than 87 per cent of victims knew their assailant, the Stats Can report said.
Miller said that can be another reason people don't report assaults.
"There are certainly barriers when it comes to it being people that they know or it being family members, because there's social consequences."
She points out that victims of sexual assault are often in the same social circle as the person who assaulted them.
"That can be very isolating when you are suddenly somebody that's making accusations against another individual."
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The most common type of relationship between the perpetrator and victim was "casual acquaintances," the Stats Can report said, followed by family relationships.
What needs to change
Miller said people will report more often if society starts viewing sexual assault as an assault, rather than something that exists in a "grey area."
"It is an assault on somebody's body," she said.
"If somebody had walked up to you in a bar and punched you in the face, nobody would suggest you asked for it by how you were dressed or the fact that you're female."
We're never going to get ahead of this, or really start seeing any big changes, until we're able to do more education and more outreach, because it starts with kids.- Lisa Miller, executive director of the Regina Sexual Assault Centre
She keeps in touch with similar agencies across Canada and in Saskatchewan.
"We're all facing the same issues around reporting rates," she said, noting other regions, like Windsor, have adopted a model that could be beneficial for all jurisdictions.
It's called the Philadelphia Model, and it involves local agencies collaborating with police to review sexual assault files. Miller said it increases transparency in reviews, and offers a victim a sense that someone is advocating for them and hears their voice.
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However, she said real change will only happen when the approach becomes preventive rather than reactive.
"We're never going to get ahead of this or really start seeing any big changes until we're able to do more education and more outreach, because it starts with kids."
The number for the Regina census metropolitan area includes communities outside city limits, including Lumsden, Regina Beach, Belle Plaine, Pense, Rowatt, Richardson, White City, Pilot Butte, Balgonie and Edenwold.