15,000 victims of rape and sexual assault receiving support in NI

View Supporting survivors of rape and sexual abuse in a full screen map

By Kathryn Torney

IT is estimated that one in four people suffer sexual abuse in their lifetime. We know this includes men and women across Northern Ireland, ranging in age from babies to people in their 90s.

The Detail has analysed data held by leading counselling charity Nexus and we also visited Northern Ireland’s sexual assault referral centre based in the grounds of Antrim Hospital to speak to staff helping victims on a daily basis.

The map above shows the home postcode district of almost 14,000 people supported by Nexus over the last six years. This illustrates the scale of abuse inflicted on people living in towns and cities across Northern Ireland.

Some sought help shortly after being raped or assaulted but for many it was years or even decades before they spoke out about what had happened to them.

High profile cases like the serial abuse carried out by TV presenter Jimmy Savile have brought the issue into sharp public focus.

But, despite more open public debate, we know that our map gives only a snapshot of the true impact of sexual abuse here. For many victims, their abuse will remain a secret known only to them and their perpetrator.

THE ROWAN

More than 1,100 people have been supported by Northern Ireland’s sexual assault referral centre since it opened its doors in May 2013.

The Rowan, based in the grounds of Antrim Hospital, is jointly funded by the Department of Health and the PSNI.

The Detail reports today from a visit to the centre where we spoke to staff and had a tour of the building.

The Rowan team delivers a range of support and services to children, young people, women and men who have been sexually abused, assaulted or raped, whether this happened in the past or more recently. Individuals do not have to report the incident to the police.

For those people who have been recently sexually assaulted they can have a forensic medical examination and the forensic evidence can be stored at The Rowan for up to seven years.

They can also access emergency contraception, receive medication to help prevent onset of HIV, have screening for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and be supported in making a report to the police.

For those people sexually assaulted weeks, months or even years ago, The Rowan offers referral onto counselling, advice and screening for STIs and informal discussion with a specially trained police officer, if requested.

PSNI figures show that in the last 10 years (up to the end of March 2014) a total of 18,335 sexual offences were reported to the police. Of these, 4,693 were rapes.

Of all the sexual offences recorded in 2013/14, 46% of the rapes and 37% of other sexual assaults were reported more than 12 months after they occurred.

Not all sexual assaults are reported to the police.

The Rowan’s services were open to police referrals only in its first three months. This was then extended to include self-referrals and third party referrals.

The first year at The Rowan, Northern Ireland's Sexual Assault Referral Centre

The first year at The Rowan, Northern Ireland's Sexual Assault Referral Centre

A total of 520 individuals were referred into The Rowan in its first year, with a further 77 individuals seeking information and/or signposting onwards.

For 42 of the attendees, their report of sexual violence was part of an intimate partner relationship.

Victims are met at a private, discrete entrance by a nurse who will act as their advocate and stay with them throughout their time at The Rowan. They are offered the taking of early evidence including mouth swabs and swabs of their hands.

There are three self-contained forensic pods within The Rowan, one of which has been specifically designed for child victims and is also suitable for use by those with a disability.

Each pod has a waiting room for friends and family and a private garden area for each pod allowing the victim to take a break outside if required.

The Detail visited The Rowan to meet the staff and see around the building. Among those we spoke to was Dr Olive Buckley, the centre’s clinical director.

She said: “The Rowan exists today because Nexus lobbied and campaigned for a sexual assault referral centre.

“Right from the word go victims have been heavily involved and organisations which represent the victims have been consulted throughout the whole process. This is victim led and it has been built with the victim at the centre of it.

“This is the reason why we are so successful in looking after people. The victims have told us what they need and their voice has been heard.”

The centre encourages victims to have forensic samples taken as soon as possible.

“We can still collect forensic evidence up to seven days but from a forensic point of view and also from a health point of view the sooner the better and ideally within the first three days of the assault,” Dr Buckley said.

“We would say to people don’t worry about what may seem to be the unknown. We are here to help with any fears and the person is very much in control of the situation. They will be supported the whole way through the examination and afterwards.”

She stressed that sexual violence is no respecter of age, gender or background.

“In the last year 41% of people we have seen in The Rowan have been aged under 18. We see babies and people in their 90s, male and female. We also deal with both recent and historic cases.”

Dr Buckley said that victims react in many different ways. They can be distressed, shocked, quiet, withdrawn or “just in total disbelief about what has happened”.

“One minute their life is all right and then this massive explosion has gone up in their life. No two people react to trauma exactly the same way and we would be completely tuned into that.

“Our focus for anyone coming in our doors is that they leave in a much better situation than when they came in.”

Around 80% of the referrals into The Rowan come from the police. Others who do not want to involve the police can come back up to seven years later to make a complaint and use the forensic evidence stored at the centre.

“We encourage people to report. We can facilitate with them to have meetings with the police to discuss their options and quite a large percentage of people do go on to talk to the police. We are really pleased about that because in the bigger picture that’s increasing protection for us all.”

VIDEO: The Rowan, Northern Ireland's sexual assault referral centre. / Filming by Niall McCracken

COUNSELLING AND SUPPORT

Nexus has supported 15,163 clients over the last six years. They have all experienced rape or sexual abuse.

Using data provided by the counselling charity, we have been able to compile a map showing the postcode district of the clients on their books.

Postcode information was available for 13,842 people. We removed eight postcode areas where there were less than five cases to prevent identification of individuals.

Those seeking help were referred to Nexus by a range of agencies including hospitals, GPs, social workers, the Samaritans and The Rowan. Some self-referred.

The postcode area with the largest number of people was BT48 in Derry where 665 people were supported by the charity over the last six years, mostly via counselling.

This was followed by 531 people based in BT14 (Ballysillan area of Belfast), 477 in BT12 (Belfast’s Falls Road, Sandy Row and The Village), BT47 in Derry and BT36 (Newtownabbey, Mossley and Glengormley).

In total, 6,652 people based across Northern Ireland took part in counselling sessions and 7,072 participated in workshops.

The age of clients was provided in 11,681 cases. The largest age category was 20-29, closely followed by 30-39. Over 870 teenagers were supported by Nexus – as well as six people aged 80 or over.

Nexus can currently only support people aged over 16.

Age breakdown of clients supported by Nexus

Age breakdown of clients supported by Nexus

During our visit to The Rowan, we interviewed Nexus’ chief executive Pam Hunter.

She said: “The Rowan is a fabulous building. It’s state of the art and we are all very proud of it.

“Nexus lobbied for the centre after receiving feedback from our clients about the ghastly experience they were having when they were giving evidence.

“The feedback we have been getting about the service it provides is that it is second to none, really superb. It is a caring environment for what is a horrific experience for the clients.”

Miss Hunter said she believes sexual assault is the root cause for a whole lot of society’s ails.

“Your core emotions being tarnished at a very young age stops your emotional growth. If you imagine you were abused at the age of three or four, then the chances are your emotional intelligence will remain at that age. It just kind of seems to freeze it at that age.

“Sixty-five percent of Nexus clients are abused by somebody within the family so it’s not stranger danger, it’s somebody grooming you from a very young age.”

It is thought that one in four people suffer sexual abuse.

“If you can imagine one in four people when you’re sitting in a pub and looking around or sitting around your family table or even in your classroom. It’s quite a shocking statistic.”

Nexus has supported victims for 30 years and in the wake of high profile cases like Jimmy Savile, the number of people phoning the charity for support is growing every day.

“The majority of our clients are actually abused between the ages of zero and ten but they don’t come to us until between the ages of 25 and 45.

“It tends to be a life-changing experience that has happened – for example they may have moved away from home and away from the environment within which they were abused and suddenly realise it was wrong. Or they have maybe had kids themselves and realise what a normal mother/daughter relationship is and think hang on, that’s not what I had. So they start to question their own experience and then from that they come to us.

“The average age of an abuser is 35. The majority of our clients are abused between the ages of zero to 10 so you can see how that fits in with the family dynamic and the grooming of somebody.”

Miss Hunter said that Nexus provides a “completely non-judgemental, safe, secure space for somebody to come and just unload what they are carrying with themselves”.

Nexus has applied for funding to extend its support to children aged under 16.

“It is a bit of a postcode lottery to be honest if you are a child under the age of 16 of where you get the support. So from that point Nexus is trying to be proactive to look for funding to provide that support for people in need.”

HELPLINE NUMBERS:

Nexus: Belfast 028 9032 6803, Derry 028 7126 0566 and Nexus NI

Women’s Aid’s 24 Hour Domestic and Sexual Violence Helpline: 0808 8021414

The Rowan’s freephone helpline number: 0800 3894424.