Victoria’s Sexual Assault Response Team is there
Tracey Coulter knows when the most important words a woman can hear are: ‘I’m sorry this happened to you; I’m here to support you; I believe you.’
Coulter has been telling survivors just that for the past five years with the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), a 24/7 emergency service out of the Victoria Women’s Sexual Assault Centre (VWSAC).
“When that call comes in, we are like the first line of defence,” says Coulter, VWSAC’s auxiliary crisis counsellor and volunteer coordinator.
The minute Coulter or one of the on-call SART volunteers are paged, she knows the drill: rush to the hospital, introduce yourself to the survivor and tell her why you’re there, find out what brought her here, explain the hospital, medical and legal procedures and options at the survivor’s request and tell her she’s in control now — everything from here on out is her decision, and you trust her to make it.
“Sometimes, those words — just telling someone that you’re there to support them and that you believe them — make the entire difference in a woman’s healing after an assault,” says Coulter, who has her masters degree in trauma counselling. “Then, your role is to stick by them during this process, whether that means explaining what’s going to happen next, or grabbing them some food, a warm blanket or a smoke, and reiterating that at any time she can stop this process.”
In other words, Coulter says, it’s like having a walking handbook — and friend — beside you in one of the most traumatic and confusing times of a woman’s life.
“It can be terrifying,” Coulter says, about being in a hospital after an assault. “One of the things that always amazes me, and that I always have to ask is, ‘How did you get here?’ Just knowing that she had the strength and bravery to get to the hospital, or ask for help from someone to get her here is so inspiring to me.”
SART volunteers are highly trained individuals, both in the hospital methods and general legal proceedings. They work with survivors to call the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) for a professional exam or rape kit, and they can help a survivor make a report to the police or find a safe location to return to, as well as find counselling. While most SART calls are made from the hospital or police station, people can also access the team through the VWSAC crisis line.
“There’s so much meaning you find in this type of work, especially in giving back to your own community,” Coulter says. “Just knowing that you could make the difference in how someone handles a traumatic event is very powerful.”
Training sessions for the SART program happen twice a year — in April and October — and, because the program is run on a volunteer system, there is a high rotation so that people don’t get burnt out: most take three shifts a month, but some people may never see a call in that time. While the service is called on to support all gender survivors of assault, only women or those who identify as women are accepted as volunteers. But while the work can sound traumatic itself, Coulter says it’s some of the most rewarding work she’s ever done. And for a program that’s 20 years running, that sentiment is shared.
Both Coulter and VWSAC Manager of Client Services Stephanie Capyk agree that, ideally, there’d be no need for a centre like VWSAC. On the heels of the March 25 sexual assault against a 20-year-old woman near the University of Victoria campus, though, Capyk says there are some issues that need to be brought up — namely, fear mongering.
“It’s natural, when events like this happen, that people’s first reaction is, ‘Am I safe? Is my daughter safe?’ But while 20 per cent of sexual assault cases are stranger reported incidents, the majority — 80 per cent — are domestic or known acquaintance cases that often go unheard,” she says.
Capyk also says that putting the onus on women by encouraging them to “travel in packs” or “watch their drinks” may be feeding us all a false sense of security. In reality, she says, this is a big-picture cultural problem that will only be fixed when we change how our society views assaults against women: not as the woman’s fault, but the perpetrator’s.
“We want people to look at the big picture here and start asking, what contributes to gender violence?” Capyk says. “The reality is that women do not have the same power as men in our culture … We want women treated as equals, but there is still so much objectification that goes on in the media and through advertising, that it sends a confusing message. And that needs to be addressed.”
Capyk encourages parents and educators to start by having conversations with their sons as well as their daughters.
“It is wonderful to see people talking about these issues, and you can sense the shift in how we’re responding to hearing about this,” Capyk says. “It’s no longer something women are made to feel should be swept under the rug, but we see people outraged and asking for help in knowing how to take action and say, ‘This is not the community we live in.’”
One such group, termed “Men and Feminism,” is a collective starting up a Camas Bookstore. The group plans on regular meetings as of May, and more information can be found through VWSAC or by searching the group on Facebook.
Another tool VWSAC is offering community members is “The List,” which marks down ways to take action against sexual assault and helpful tips to educate youth and community members on the matter. Visit the centre’s website for more information.
For those who have experienced trauma, Coulter did have a few useful facts for survivors, including the knowledge that cases brought forward within 72 hours are often the most successful in terms of collecting DNA, as well as administering emergency contraceptives or anti-viral drugs. However, gathering forensic evidence is not necessarily the most important step in solving a sexual assault crime — survivor healing is also a big part.
Capyk says it’s important to note that B.C. has no statute of limitations when it comes to reporting sexual assault incidents. That means whether someone went through something recently, or in their childhood, there’s still time to come in, talk and report if desired. Since there are many reasons a woman would not want to report a rape, Capyk says the role of VWSAC and SART is ultimately to trust the woman to be able to make the best decision for her own case.
“We all want sexualized violence to stop. It shatters safety for everyone: not just women, but for the men and the women they care about as well. If there was a singular message we could send to women that would prevent all violence, we’d do it. But there’s not,” says Capyk, adding that until all of society starts taking responsibility, that won’t change. “But I do believe there is hope. I see it. We all want to be out of jobs here — to go open floral shops or something instead.”
For more information, or to access help, visit vwsac.com or call the VWSAC Crisis Line at 250-383-3232. M