08:07, December 05 305 0 theguardian.com

2017-12-05 08:07:04
Interview  Stephanie Reardon: ‘Sexual violence is still not taken seriously enough in Whitehall’

“Often people do not realise how prolific sexual violence is,” says Stephanie Reardon, 37, who runs a training organisation that aims to improve how the police, NHS and other professionals respond to victims of sexual violence. “The majority of survivors do not tell the police. Reported sexual offences are the tip of the iceberg.”

Even though official figures show that in the year to June 2017, the number of sexual offences reported to the police in England and Wales rose 19% to 129,700, reported rapes by 22%, and stalking and harassment by 36%, Reardon says the true numbers of victims are far higher than these figures suggest.

“While it’s fantastic that more is being done to encourage people to come forward to report sexual offences, this has not been matched by an increase in the resources dedicated to the support of those who do.”

Before co-founding the training organisation LimeCulture in 2009 with Kim Doyle, Reardon helped set up and develop a network of sexual assault referral centres across England with Doyle when they both worked at the Department of Health. “We worked with the different agencies to ensure that services like forensic medical examination, crisis support, counselling and therapeutic support, independent sexual violence advisers and sexual health services were brought together, either in one building, or with clear routes in place to reduce the need for victims to navigate themselves between services and repeat what had happened to them,” says Reardon.

The centres were also designed to increase the likelihood of convictions. “If someone reports a rape or sexual assault, it is important to ensure there is the best possible evidence to support an investigation and potentially a prosecution,” she says. “Sitting alongside the criminal justice system, it is crucially important to make sure the victims are physically well, that their mental health needs are met. But these two do not sit well together. A victim might talk to a counsellor, for example. And naturally she or he will want to talk about what happened to them and discuss their case. But this could potentially jeopardise the chances of a prosecution, because the defence could argue that they were coached.”

The NHS, police and local authorities were encouraged to jointly fund and commission services for the centres. But since 2012, NHS England has had responsibility for funding forensic medical examinations and crisis support, while different services provided in the centres are now funded separately by police and crime commissioners and clinical commissioning groups.

“What we’re seeing is some centres watering down their services,” says Reardon. “Now some services are falling by the wayside because NHS England says it is not responsible for providing them.” In some areas, independent sexual violence advisers are no longer provided now that NHS England does not fund them.

In areas such as West Yorkshire, Cumbria, Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire, Essex, Cambridgeshire and Avon and Somerset, the police and crime commissioners have picked up responsibility to fund new independent sexual violence adviser services but this is not the case in all jurisdictions. Counselling services in some areas have also been taken out of the specialist sexual assault referral centres, as NHS England says they should be funded by clinical commissioning groups. “The danger is that we start to see the elements of the centres’ service broken up, and crucial aspects of support no longer coordinated or, even worse, not available at all,” she says.

Part of the problem is that despite the high-profile media attention, sexual violence is still not taken seriously enough in Whitehall, Reardon believes. “Sexual violence doesn’t get the priority or, dare I say it, the right calibre of civil servants working on it. Some of the policy leads in these areas are very junior. They don’t have the decision-making or budgetary powers. Responsibility for tackling sexual violence needs to be at a much higher level across government.”

And responsibility for sexual violence policy is diluted because it is shared between the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice, health and education departments, with service provision then falling to the police, NHS, local authorities, CPS and the HM Courts and Tribunals Service, she adds. “My experience of cross-government initiatives is that it is easy for things to fall between the cracks.” So what’s the answer? Reardon is clear – more money and a higher profile in Whitehall. “Sexual violence has never had its own national programme and that’s what it needs,” she replies.

LimeCulture works across the public, private and voluntary sectors. It has trained more than 450 independent sexual violence advisers and staff in seven sexual assault referral centres, 17 NHS trusts, several police forces, 150 local voluntary organisations providing specialist sexual violence services and 19 universities.

So how good is the public sector in dealing with sexual assault or harassment within its own workforce? “It’s a really difficult issue for any employer,” says Reardon. “Where people report sexual offences, many employers do not know how to respond appropriately.”

Sometimes the hardest thing for somebody who has experienced sexual violence is to tell another person about their experience, she explains. “They often feel guilt or shame and may worry that they won’t be believed. If and when somebody does decide to talk about their experience, there is a need to handle any disclosures of sexual violence with sensitivity and care.”

In addition to sparing the victim any further distress, it is also vital to make sure nothing is said or done that might undermine a potential criminal investigation. “This is often a difficult balance,” says Reardon. “I think there is greater awareness among professionals and public sector organisations about sexual violence, but I am not convinced that their [employers’] handling of disclosures of sexual violence would always be appropriate. In a big organisation, there is a greater likelihood of inconsistent responses to victims, so it is important employers have robust policies and consistent approaches.”

She adds: “It is very easy for professionals and organisations to get this wrong, particularly if the person who the victim decides to tell does not have any understanding of sexual violence and its impact.”

Curriculum Vitae

Age: 37

Family: Married, two daughters

Lives: Cambridgeshire

Education: Comberton Village College, Cambridge; Long Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge; Nottingham law school, Nottingham Trent University (law); legal practice course, College of Law of England and Wales.

Career: 2011-present: joint chief executive, LimeCulture; 2011-15: independent adviser and peer reviewer, ending gang and youth violence programme, Home Office; 2012: consultant programme manager, social impact bond programme, Age UK and Improving Care, national delivery manager; 2009-11: national support team for response to sexual violence, Department of Health; 2007-09: national programme manager, improving access to psychological therapies programme, Department of Health; 2007-08: violence and abuse liaison Officer, Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, Serious Organised Crime Agency; 2004-07: national programme manager, violence and abuse programme, Department of Health.

Interests: Travelling, reading crime thrillers and gardening.