Sussex Police: How survivors are supported after a sexual assault or rape

Sussex Police’s Sexual Offences Investigation Team was set up in 2018 to bridge the gap between the survivor and the different parts of the process.

Wednesday, 15th September 2021, 8:15 am
Updated Wednesday, 15th September 2021, 8:38 am

Previously Sussex Police had a group of Sexual Offence Liaison Officers who provided this support to victims, but this was in addition to their regular police duties.

Officers and staff across the force had already been able to provide this type of support service but the 22 SOITs are the first full-time dedicated team to do so, working alongside specially trained investigators in Sussex Police’s Specialist Investigation Units (SIUs).

The SIUs and SOITs are based alongside each other in Littlehampton, Crawley, Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings.

Victim support Picture: Unsplash

PCC Claire Harthill has been a SOIT officer since it was founded in 2018.

She said: “We are there from the beginning so once it is assigned to a detective chief inspector they put it to the SOIT and depending on the urgency we go out.

“We are with the person throughout the whole case, so the case may go to different investigating officers or departments but we are the constant for them.

“We found before the scheme launched there was a lot of repetition that victims had to repeat their story a number of times to different people so they tell us and relay information back and forth to them and the officers involved.”

PIcture: Pixabay

She adds that SOIT officers are victim focussed and take the initial interview and gather evidence.

A survivor from Sussex reported a sexual assault to Sussex Police three years ago.

She said: “A lady called Liane was a sexual assault support worker, she was not a counsellor or a therapist she would just meet up with me and talk as best as I could. It was nice.

“She also would be there supporting me in court (if it went that far).

“Lianne is still in contact with me even now, she stays with me as long as I need her basically, like a friend until I feel like I don’t need her support anymore.

“We don’t speak as much as we did before my court case.”

Detective Chief Inspector Chris Mayle works in the Safeguarding Investigation Unit, East Sussex Division. He has been a police officer for 24 years and a detective for 21.

He explains how a SOIT officer is assigned when a serious sexual assault is reported involving a victim aged 12 or over. In other cases, it will be the officer in the case.

When it comes to the crucial time frame for the investigation he said: “If it is a recent allegation then the ‘forensic window’ is key. This is the short period of time in which viable forensic samples can be collected from the victim and/or suspect to help prove (or disprove) the offence.

“How long a case takes from start to finish depends entirely on factors such as identifying the suspect, how many victims and suspects. Some investigations are longer due to need for intermediaries for interview, third party material, forensic submissions etc.”

The survivor from Sussex found the process ‘long and tiring’.

She said: “I couldn’t move on from anything and it felt like it was a never ending situation.

“I assumed that I had been forgotten about or my evidence was not enough to make it materialise into something bigger. I started to lose hope in the police.”

PCC Harthill said: “These investigations can be quite long so we keep them updated be it once a week, once a month or just when something happens it is up to the person.

“We also get to know them so we know how to explain things to them and communicate with them in a way that isn’t patronising.

“We are an advocate for them and will communicate with other officers in charge, and the CPS.

“And if it is decided that no further action is to be taken we do a face to face meeting with them with a letter and go through with them why no further action will be taken.”

DCI Mayle explains that cases can be deemed under no further action for a number of reasons including, but not limited to:

1. Victim no longer wishes to support investigation.

2. Suspect not identified.

3. Insufficient evidence to provide realistic prospect of prosecution (could be police or CPS decision).

4. Case submitted for no-crime (verifiable evidence that the alleged offence did not happen or could not have happened or is a duplicate allegation already recorded).

Statistics from Sussex Police showed that between April 2019 and March 2020 there were 1690 rapes reported, in April 2020 until March 2021 this was 1457. Other recorded serious sexual offences reported in 2019/2020 was 2151 and 2020/2021 1813.

Victim Support’s specialist services in Sussex noted that it had seen an increase in the numbers of sexual violence survivors referred since the coronavirus restrictions eased.

Valerie Wise, Victim Support’s domestic abuse lead, said: “Since lockdown restrictions were imposed, it has been incredibly challenging for many survivors as it has not only contributed to significant mental distress and re-triggered trauma, but also made it more difficult for some victims to come forward and seek help.”

Rapes and sexual assaults can be reported to Sussex Police through 101, 999, email, or via a third party be it a friend or family member.

PCC Harthill said: “We are setting up a scheme where an organisation can get in touch so if someone goes to them first so we can be notified. We want to get proactive so if there is a pattern in a certain area we can put together profiles and hotspots.

“We can also use social media so we have buzzwords that if people comment on a post with them they can get a private DM from us, there is also a multi-agency department that we get referrals such as social services.”

The survivor from Sussex explains that her experience of Sussex Police was more positive than she expected.

She added: “I am so happy that the crown courts believed me and took my evidence and made it into a court case. The only negative I have about the police system is how long the victims have to wait.

“My court hearing got cancelled and postponed twice. It was the most heartbreaking thing I’ve experienced. I just wanted it all to be over.

“I was a completely different to the person who had reported the case two years prior.

“The whole case and what happened to me had been on my mind everyday for those two and a bit years, it affected my friendships, work, family and my mental state.

“Court was one of the hardest things I’ve faced in my life however the years of waiting led me to be extremely determined for court.

“They were very good and looked after me well whilst I was there.”

The SOIT team are able to refer people to a number of charities in the area who are there to support survivors including the Survivors Network or Victim Support.

Valerie from Victim Support said: “We have worked hard to ensure that survivors are provided with high quality emotional and practical support regardless of whether they reported the incident to the police or how long ago it took place.

“Sexual violence can have a devastating and long-lasting impact on victims’ lives.

“As we are now coming out of lockdown, we want survivors in Sussex to know that help and support is available whenever they need it by contacting our free and confidential 24/7 Supportline on 0808 16 89 111 or by using our live chat services via the website, www.victimsupport.org.uk”

For the survivor from Sussex she feels she may have left counselling too late.

She said: “I wasn’t given any counselling for what happened to me. My mum and dad had to reach out to places and I had to go to the doctors myself just to get a referral.

“My mental health was getting so bad that I was extremely suicidal, I ended up trying to take my life multiple times. My eating disorder came back and I used substances to distract myself from all the pain.

“I did get private counselling sessions for a couple weeks but mum and dad couldn’t afford it anymore so that soon stopped and the counselling I’ve had since has only been in the last few months so I believe I’ve had counselling too late, and let my emotions build up.”

She added: “Maybe if there were more charities where I could’ve gone to group therapy and met people who’d gone through what I have gone through. I would have felt much better.”

For support visit survivorsnetwork.org.uk