Services are independent from statutory or legal responses to sexual violence in order to preserve their capacity to work in a client-centred way.
Frontline staff within independent stand-alone sexual violence services have the ability to focus solely on the needs of victims/survivors, provide more inclusive sexual assault community outreach, and may be in a better position to establish well-balanced partnerships.
For example, research has indicated that Rape Crisis Centers were more responsive to the needs of survivors and more able to engage in social change efforts in comparison to government led social service organisations. In the UK, one of the major challenges faced by independent sexual violence services was the extra effort and work required to establish and maintain relationships with other agencies, however maintaining independence was perceived as more of a strength in improving access for victims and maintaining their confidence.
Due to the nature of their roles, many of the other services or people involved in responding to sexual violence have agendas other than, or in addition to, the welfare and well-being of the victim. It can be a result of these other pressures or requirements that these services can inadvertently cause harm to the survivor.
As an example of how another agenda can cause harm to a survivor, is the nature of the process to get justice. Often crime of this nature lacks independent witnesses and corroborative evidence such as DNA evidence. As a result, a common response to an allegation of sexual violation can be victim-blaming ‘she wanted it’ and victims can feel ‘fobbed off’ or that they were wasting police and doctors’ time. Along with the evidential standard of reasonable belief the victim’s credibility is most often made the issue in court. The following quote is from a woman sexually assaulted in her own bedroom by a man who broke into her home:
The doctor explained that the blood sample would also be used to detect the presence of alcohol: if no alcohol was present, then the rapist couldn’t say I’d been drunk. Was the doctor suggesting that if I had been drinking there could be some confusion as to whether or not I’d consented to intercourse? Taking the blood sample seemed an unnecessary and almost abusive intrusion into my body. But I had no option: I was to undergo an invasive procedure to defend myself against possible accusations from the perpetrator of this crime.
The harm caused by such experiences can lead to significant distress for victims. A UK based study found that neither individual variables, nor rape-related variables alone predicted high scores on a measure of post-traumatic stress, but secondary victimisation by medical or legal personnel did so. The more re-victimising actions or comments there had been, the higher the level of post-traumatic symptomatology. This effect was ameliorated where the survivor had high levels of mental health support. This study was published in 1999. It is not clear what degree of change has occurred over time as we were not able to find any recent replication.
One of the roles of the crisis support service is to ameliorate harm through providing a concurrent person who is focused on the needs of the survivor. This includes providing full information about the reasons for the action of the other role, assisting the victim/survivor to move away from the harm causing issue if this is what they want, and negotiating with other services to alter what they are doing or how they are doing it if harm is being caused.
Advocates provide a significant role supporting victims/survivors so they do not have to deal with different agencies in different locations.
Victims who access the support of an advocate are less likely to experience negative outcomes (such as self-blame and depression) and less distress. Victims are also less reluctant to seek further support. Advocate support can reduce common barriers to victim participation in the criminal justice process.
A study in the UK found that higher levels of advocacy had been required to assist victims to get their needs met where factors of the assault and factors of the victim did not fit the mold of: stranger rape with a weapon causing injury to a victim who shows distress, was not using alcohol at the time of the assault and who seems receptive to help. It is important to note that scenarios fitting this “mold, are not the majority