I recently completed a rigorous training to become a mentor to people affected by domestic abuse and sexual violence. The mentoring programme is an innovative listening service implemented by a charity called First Light who provide support to people across three counties in the Southwest of England namely Cornwall, Devon and Wiltshire. As a person who witnessed the ravages of domestic violence as a child, my drive to do this work is fuelled by a wish to ensure that there is impactful support for everyone who is regrettably affected by it. In attending the training, I became increasingly aware of how I had dissociated from the trauma synonymous with domestic abuse as a child and how such a turbulent and disruptive environment became my interpretation of normality. What is fundamental to the mentoring service is the client’s voice being heard and attuned to. It is an opportunity to be listened to attentively, with empathy and non-judgement but is not a counselling service where there is more of a dynamic interplay between counsellor and client. For some, it might be the first time they have been given a voice which can be an empowering experience living as they have in a climate of power and control. Clients who are referred to the mentoring service would have previously undergone a Domestic Abuse Stalking and Honour based (DASH) risk assessment to determine the level of threat to the individual, family/household members and the wider public. Clients coming into the mentoring programme are those that require more support than an individual call to the helpline can provide yet do not need intensive support and advocacy from either a Domestic Abuse Support Advisor (DASA) or an Independent Domestic Violence Advisor (IDVA).
The Independent Sexual Violence Advisor service is commissioned separately from the First Light domestic abuse service and is funded by the Office for Police and Crime Commissioner (OPCC) which is a Devon and Cornwall wide service. All police and professional referrals come via a specific point of contact called the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC), run by North Devon Healthcare Trust. This includes both acute and historical offences. Self-Referrals (non-acute) are usually made via the First Light website.
The first pilot study of ISVAs was introduced in the UK between 2005 and 2006 in response to the Baroness Stern study into the treatment of rape complaints by public authorities in England and Wales. Following the Stern review in 2009, the government recommended that ISVAs should be integral to the way that rape complainants are dealt with and inherent in the way that the state fulfils its obligation to victims of sexual assault. The ISVA programme was implemented nationally with research demonstrating that victims of sexual offences were twice as likely to continue with the criminal justice process if they were supported by an ISVA.
For the purposes of this article, I opted to meet with Andie Clift, an ISVA for four years and employed by First Light, to learn more about what her role entails and how it benefits the client. It was working as a crisis worker at the SARC that piqued Andie’s interest in becoming an ISVA. In that role, one of her responsibilities was to refer a person who had been assaulted to the ISVA service. Andie found the idea of accompanying a client on their journey through the criminal justice process from start to finish compelling in stark contrast to providing immediate but aborted support as a crisis worker. One of the frustrations of her work as a crisis worker was not knowing the client’s progress after that initial treatment. I asked Andie how a person who has been assaulted seeks the help of an ISVA. She explained that when a sexual offence has taken place, the person who has been assaulted is referred to the SARC either by the police or related agencies to elicit vital forensic evidence that can be instrumental in securing a positive judicial outcome. Alternatively, a person can refer themselves. Forensic evidence can be integral to the likelihood of justice being served hence the imperativeness of a referral to the SARC in the first instance rather than immediate referral to an ISVA. Andie emphasised the imperativeness of robust, empathic support in this initial treatment as a negative experience can colour the rest of the client’s journey or compel them to withdraw from seeking justice.
Following treatment at the SARC, a crisis worker will refer a person to the ISVA service. A triage worker will contact the person who has been referred within twenty-four hours of the referral being processed. This could be a referral for a recent sexual assault, or a historic incident as there are no time limits in the UK for reporting sexual offences. Upon initial contact, a needs assessment is carried out and the person who has been assaulted is informed that an ISVA will be in touch imminently. This role was implemented to ease the pressure on the ISVA as making that first important contact within twenty-four hours was compromised by other responsibilities they were juggling. Andie highlighted the opportunity for an options meeting which enables a person to explore the different paths available to them if they are unsure whether they wish to proceed down the criminal justice route. This might comprise reporting to the police, counselling or to give anonymous information via an ISVA to the police which can be both empowering whilst allaying the concern and guilt that a perpetrator might harm somebody else. Andie explained that she sends a text in the first instance as this feels less confronting for the client and over time, a trusting relationship is developed. Ordinarily, clients are seen in person but throughout the Covid 19 pandemic, Andie had to adjust to working on the telephone. She described this as a difficult transition given the impersonal nature of telephone work and the impediment to reading vital body language. However, as time has ensued, she is now comfortable working in this way and now works with a hybrid of virtual and face to face contact depending on the clients need.
Andie’s passion for the work was palpable. She told me she ‘loves being an ISVA’. I asked her what the most rewarding aspect of the job was, and she told me it was being witness to the trajectory between the broken individual at the start of the criminal justice process and the strong and empowered person at the end. She described how privileged she felt to be a part of that empowering journey and how prescient her encouraging words are at the start: ‘where you are now is not where you will be in however many months or years’ time’. She alluded to the importance of the relationship and how that unfailing support and encouragement are pivotal in helping the client to become whole again.
Conversely, I asked her what the most challenging role was which she defined as not becoming too emotionally attached. She spoke of the imperativeness of firm boundaries to safeguard both the client and herself from becoming too attached. Andie shared how ‘some clients will stay in your head if there isn’t a good outcome’. However, she explained that sometimes going through the judicial process and having an ISVA’s support is empowering irrespective of whether justice is served. The person accused of sexual assault is brought to account throughout that process and for the person bringing those charges against them that can be empowering enough.
Telling a person who has experienced an assault that there isn’t enough evidence to pursue the case is another challenging aspect of being an ISVA. Andie explained that often the police will inform her first and she will be present when the police inform her client. I asked Andie how she stopped herself from getting emotionally involved. She told me:
‘I had to learn to do it. I have learned it more in this job than any other. What helps is the long drive home as I can wind down from the day and process my thoughts. Now that the work is home based due to Covid restrictions, it is harder, but I will go for a drive to detach. If I spend all weekend worrying about that one person who is suicidal Friday afternoon and whether they will be alive on Monday, I’m not going to be any good for that person when we next meet. It comes as you get older’.
In questioning the most fundamental role of the ISVA, Andie explained it is to offer people ‘realistic hope’ regardless of what the criminal justice outcome might be. She explained how important it is to communicate to the person who has been sexually assaulted that the police will believe them and expressed the client’s reciprocal need to trust that justice will be served thereby validating the criminal injury that was perpetrated on them. However, Andie warned that this is just a small element of the process. What is important above all else, is to have hope that they will recover from the ordeal, and this is integral to the ISVA’s role. Andie commented:
‘I really believe that broken people can get better, you don’t have to be broken,’ adding that, ‘the role of the ISVA is to believe in someone when they can’t believe in themselves.’
Interestingly, she also described how humour can play a vital role in supporting people who have been assaulted, a striking paradox in a barren landscape of pain.
Andie told me that a client’s journey can last on average two years from the time it is reported to the police until it goes to court, if, indeed, it makes it that far. During Covid, cases could be delayed by up to three and half years, which makes an ISVA’s support even more pertinent. She explained that at the start of the process, the client needs a lot of support but as time evolves, the need for that support becomes diluted. The client has autonomy over how much support they seek thereby empowering and enabling them to recognise their own resilience and resourcefulness. Andie described how it is important to normalise what the client is feeling in the context of sexual trauma and to reassure them that the feelings they are wrestling with are universal amongst people who have experienced sexual assault. She asserted how sexual violence is indiscriminate with nobody exempt from its perpetration. She described how a number of her clients feel they might have been drugged as a result of their drinks being spiked and how not knowing whether a rape has occurred can be particularly traumatising. Although most rapes are perpetrated by people known to a person who is assaulted, interestingly, the number of rapes by strangers on Andie’s caseload appears to have escalated as lockdown eased.
ISVAs do work with people who have been sexually assaulted or raped within their own home. However, where sexual assault or rape has occurred within a Domestic Abuse context, an Independent Domestic Violence Adviser (IDVA) will lead the case. They will look at reducing the risk of harm, safeguarding, safety planning, injunctions etc. The IDVA will work alongside the ISVA until the risk is alleviated and where a case is going to court for a sexual violence offence, the ISVA will provide longer term support. Andie described how working alongside an ISVA gives the client a safe space to grieve for the loss of a relationship that was once loving or that oscillated between happy times and bad. She explained how in the early days of a client leaving their partner, they might toy with the idea of returning. This can be voiced and heard in a safe space, without the judgement it might incur from family and friends. Andie pointed out that the role of the ISVA is to give practical as well as emotional support, but that each ISVA may work slightly differently dependent on their personality. All support is person centred however, and Andie feels her strength lies in building an effective relationship conducive to providing essential emotional support.
I asked Andie what the primary purpose of an ISVA was and she stated it is to reduce attrition rates i.e., to keep people in the criminal justice system. She explained that when a client is considering withdrawing from the criminal justice process, she can provide a safe space for them to explore that possibility given the police don’t have the time or the resources to do so. However, although the primary purpose is to reduce attrition rates, the client’s autonomy in making that decision is fundamental as it restores control and self-advocacy. Andie’s working week is Monday to Friday from 9am to 5pm but the role generates considerable administration thereby necessitating more hours and video interviews can leak into weekends. Andie told me an attractive component of the job is the autonomy she has in her own work in that she can manage her own diary and is not micromanaged.
I asked Andie what the difference is between being a counsellor and an ISVA. She told me that an ISVA is more active and can be more direct and assertive with clients unlike a counsellor whose role is to give the client space to seek solutions for themselves. She explained that initially her role is to hold the belief for the client that they will recover from the assault until they can believe it for themselves. I was interested to know whether her safety felt compromised in any way which she affirmed unhesitatingly that it wasn’t. She explained that the Police will warn an ISVA if there is any threat, but this is not a common occurrence. Training is not a requisite before commencing the job but all ISVA’s are required to attend accredited ISVA training when commencing their post, as well generic safeguarding and other highlighted training needs. Supervision isn’t restricted allowing an ISVA to have as much as is necessary although it is usually sought once every six weeks.
It was evident from my interview with Andie that ISVAs work closely with the Police. I asked her whether the police were supportive of people who had been sexually assaulted. She remarked that largely, they are very supportive and will believe them. She stated that due to ever increasing caseloads and demands, the Police are not always adept at giving regular updates, with the client occasionally waiting some time to hear how the case is proceeding. An ISVA can relay that information on behalf of the police. She explained how the main focus for the police officer in charge of the case is to ensure the person accused of sexual assault is investigated rather than attending to the needs of the person perpetrated against. She described the Sexual Offences Liaison Officers (SOLOS) as ‘brilliant’. Their role is specifically tailored to work with people who have been sexually assaulted and act as a middleman between the officer in charge and the person who has been sexually assaulted. She explained how an ISVA works most closely alongside them.
There are currently 9 Adult ISVAs across Devon and Cornwall, 5 Child and Young Person ISVAs and one Male ISVA. With an optimum caseload of 50, although this is currently much higher, the need for such support is evident. ISVAs work with both male and female clients. Andie’s oldest client to date was 99 years old and her youngest 18 years old. Where there is domestic abuse in conjunction with sexual assault, an ISVA will become involved once the IDVA has done the high-risk work. I asked whether follow up care is offered once the criminal justice process has terminated. Andie told me that the ISVA service is funded to work alongside the criminal justice process, so that when this reaches its conclusion, support from the ISVA ends simultaneously. This would involve a planned exit strategy, however, so that no client is left without support, and appropriate extensions can be negotiated with a manager. She explained that any follow up care would be staggered and where it isn’t, to ensure the client is signposted to the right support before they leave the system.
Quite evidently, the role of an ISVA is integral to a person’s recovery journey from sexual assault providing information and support whilst instilling belief in the person’s capacity for empowerment, self-advocacy and autonomy. Although a guilty verdict validates a person’s trauma and provides judicial redress, it is the person’s evolution from broken victim to empowered survivor which is the most gratifying outcome of all. It is the ISVA’s supportive role that can facilitate this process and ensure sexual trauma does not define or colour the rest of a person’s life.
Author’s Acknowledgment: I am grateful to Andie for participating in this interview and to First Light for their permission to publish it.