Elizabeth Fry works to bridge the gap between RCMP and sex assault survivors | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Elizabeth Fry works to bridge the gap between RCMP and sex assault survivors

RCMP file photo.
October 30, 2019 - 11:00 AM

Jane Smith was 17 years old and living in foster care seven years ago when she was raped.

When she went to report the attack, no one believed her — especially not the police officer who took her statement and ultimately dismissed her claim.

Her case, which became known across Canada this spring when footage of her RCMP interview was released, is one among many that weren’t investigated and ultimately classified unfounded.

“Unfounded” is a term that indicates the investigating officer does not believe a crime was attempted or occurred and it’s disappeared from the public record.

For Smith, the result was upsetting and she came forward with her story earlier in the year not only to hold those who failed her accountable but also to do something so other women who follow in her footsteps don’t suffer the same treatment when they’re most in need, though there are clearly some lingering issues.

Statistics Canada released figures this summer and updated earlier this month, that show that of 169 sexual assault complaints in Kelowna since 2017, 39.77 per cent were considered unfounded. The provincial average is 15 per cent.

The number is high in part because the classification system lumps unsubstantiated and unfounded together, said Michelle Novakowski of the Central Okanagan branch of the Elizabeth Fry Society.

That said, the number is still "shocking," though she doesn’t believe the issue rests squarely on the local RCMP’s shoulders.

“It’s a problem systemically across Canada,” Novakowski said.

The trouble is, she said, change within the RCMP is difficult.

“It’s a big ship to change direction,” she said. “They can’t just send an email and make things get better. Training has to be better at depot and they have to have specialized training to deal with sexual assault survivors with those reports. Right now, it’s just general duty officers taking those complaints.”

Ideally, they would have a unit within the RCMP dedicated solely to dealing with sex assault complaints, though that's far in the offing.

In the meantime, Elizabeth Fry has already started some of the work that will provide support to those who have the daunting task of reporting a sexual assault.

They’ve been working with the Central Okanagan school board and the RCMP by creating protocols for administration and staff to follow when students have a sexual assault complaint to make.

“A lot of disclosures are made to teachers, counsellors, aboriginal liaisons... They need to have the resources to provide support,” she said.

Because the sad fact is the rates of unwanted sexual touching are still high. Novakowski said that an estimated one-in-three girls and one-in-six boys have been the recipient of unwanted sexual contact by age 13.

Sexual assault is also the most underreported crime with only 10 per cent of women seeking help and reporting crimes of that nature.

Novakowski said she wants to remind people that there are supports that extend beyond the RCMP and Elizabeth Fry provides many of them.

“They can come to us, we are here, we can do safety planning or offer support,” she said.

More women are already turning to them.

Novakowski said the #MeToo movement has made more women confident about sharing their stories.

“Women are feeling more empowered that they will be believed and they are coming forward,” she said. “For us, our caseload has increased, and women calling about it more than usual — that’s especially the case when there’s something like this going on.”

To contact a reporter for this story, email Kathy Michaels or call 250-718-0428 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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