Supporting roles

Professor Colin Rogers examines what has changed to make victims more willing to come forward and report historical sex offences and why friends and family are so important.

Nov 8, 2017

Like most police forces in England and Wales, Dyfed-Powys Police has seen a rise in recorded historical sexual offences over the past decade or so. This has not only placed extra demands on police specialists, who are also under pressure as a result of a reduction of budgets through government-driven austerity measures, but raises the question as to why this should be the case. To illustrate this point, the graph below shows the rise in recorded sexual offences across England and Wales from April 2002 to March 2016. Clearly there has been a dramatic increase in the number of recorded offences of this nature and anecdotal evidence and speculation has led to the belief that high-profile media cases involving celebrities, and a more open society willing to discuss previously taboo subjects, has driven many people to now report previously unreported sexual offences. However, while the anecdotal reasons for such an increase have been repeated throughout the criminal justice system, and indeed society as a whole, Dyfed-Powys Police wanted to test these hypotheses, as well as discovering more about victims’ experiences once the matter had been reported, including their journey through the criminal justice process. The force was concerned with the reporting of three main types of offences – rape, sexual assault and serious sexual assault. It was important to have the definitions of such offences in place and the following definitions from the Sexual offences Act 2003 were applied. Rape – a person commits rape if they intentionally penetrate the vagina, anus or mouth of another person with their penis without consent; Sexual assault – a person commits a sexual assault if they intentionally touch another person, the touching is sexual and the person does not consent; and Serious sexual assault: assault by penetration – a person commits assault by penetration if they intentionally penetrate the vagina or anus of another person with a part of the body or anything else without their consent. Researching complex areas within the criminal justice system is fraught with ethical dilemmas, yet if the service provided to individuals, particularly those who are victims of crime, is to be improved, then serious attempts must be made to ensure ethical and correct approaches are employed. In particular, Dyfed-Powys Police wanted the research to focus on analysing the increase in reporting of rape and sexual assaults between the following time periods: April 1, 2012 to March 31, 2013; April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014; and April 1, 2014 to March 31, 2015. For this to be achieved it would involve interacting with those who may have experienced traumatic incidents, and it was clear that the research methods employed had to acknowledge this when it came to design. Consultation between the charity New Pathways – which provides a range of specialist counselling and advocacy services for those affected by rape or sexual abuse – the Crown Prosecution Service and Dyfed-Powys Police as to how best to conduct the research was undertaken, with the major point being to remove or minimise any potential trauma or upset for individuals. New Pathways was instrumental in offering support for anyone who needed it throughout the research and after its completion. After much discussion it was resolved that to protect anonymity and provide confidentiality for victims, Dyfed-Powys Police would play a major role in the distribution of the initial contact letter and the formulation of a database of people who had agreed to take part. The force constructed a database of individuals who fitted the criteria for contact within the definition of offences. This numbered some 300. The questionnaire survey was followed up by focus group meetings that examined some of the major themes in more depth. The final number of people who agreed to take part in the research was 30, which reflects the problems of getting respondents to engage in research with such difficult and

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