15 Nov Sexual Assault Article Series – Interview with our psychotherapist
I: This is the second article of our themed series on sexual assault. Today we’re meeting the psychotherapist who collaborates with us on the service. Hello!
I: We’re going to start off by asking you if you can explain to us what the Care for Victims of Sexual Assault Service is and what its aims are.
P: It’s my understanding that this is a service that provides support in referrals on both a legal and emotional level to victims who have experienced some form of sexual assault.
I: How do you interact with this service in your work with sexual assault and rape victims?
P: Well, generally what happens is that the clients contact me through Krista. We discuss the basics of a potential referral, we ascertain if I have availability in clinic at that point, I’m given a basic brief and the client is given my mobile number, they contact me and we set up an appointment. Throughout the therapeutic process with the client I keep in touch with Victim Support, I give some basic feedback in terms of attendance, how many sessions I estimate that the client would need… and this is all done with the consent of the client. When it comes to clients who I ascertain need any additional support, generally I will contact Krista, and we will case conference depending on whether we need some legal support, or any donations, and generally she takes the lead on that.
I: Ok, great. So you’ve been working on the service since it kicked off, or you came in a bit later?
P: No, for about two years.
I: Two years, ok. So, in these two years have you noticed any patterns, common scenarios or similarities across cases? In the cases you’ve dealt with, of course…
P: Yes. One thing I’ve noticed is that in the clients that have been referred to me who have not been Maltese, and have been foreign, I found that their assailants have also been foreign. My suspicion – and it’s an unfounded suspicion only based on my conversations with them – my assumption is that foreigners seek out foreigners because they’re an easy target. If you consider that Maltese people are really tight-knit with large families and a big support network, foreigners in Malta are generally an easy target because they are, to some extent, isolated. So possibly, a foreigner in Malta might attack a foreign girl because he assumes that she’ll either leave the country, go back home and not make a fuss about it, or that she won’t be supported locally. So he’s even more likely to get away with it. In terms of the Maltese clients that I’ve worked with, the scenario is different. They’re more likely to be assaulted by people they know. It’s become more prevalent for example, that young women are in a club and they’re talking to people, they get a lift with somebody that they’re familiar with and that’s what happens on the way home. Alternatively, young women who chat with people they’re familiar with online, they agree to go for a drive, and again that’s what happens. So it seems to me that anyone who is Maltese and capable of this behaviour is more likely to target people who he’s familiar with.
I: Ok. Are there any factors, in terms of, I don’t know … age? Have you had victims of all ages?
P: When it comes to sexual assault, the victims I’ve worked with have been rather young, up to late 20’s.
I: Ok, so young…
P: Yeah, quite young, and any cases I’ve worked with in the past 14 years with domestic violence or sexual assault, they’ve been older and it happens within the family or neighbours… so it’s more internalized.
I: Have you noticed any differences between and across cases recently? Has anything caught your attention?
P: Unfortunately no. And it’s unfortunate because the disappointment continues. The amount of support that victims get from the police or from medical services leaves much to be desired. I have worked with few women who have praised the support they got from the police, and the ones who have praised it… bless them, I mean, they were very grateful… but unfortunately, it’s rare. It’s not the common feedback. Also, clients who have been taken to hospital following a rape, and they have praised social workers, but they have not been very well supported by, for example, the attending doctor at the time. They have felt shamed, they have felt upset by the fact that certain tests weren’t taken, and overall, they feel blamed. And that’s a change that we’re looking and we’re waiting for.
I: What is the most challenging aspect of your work with this specific client group?
P: I think the most challenging aspect is to maintain healthy boundaries with clients. When you have someone who is so vulnerable… especially foreign girls who come to me in clinic, I pretty much want to take them home with me, so it’s… I have to put all my theoretical know-how and my years of experience into practice then. It’s difficult to leave it to just a session, especially when you know that they live alone, that they are in financial trouble, that they are away from their families, that they might have lost their job because of this incident, that they struggle with finding legal support unless Victim Support is helping them. So they’re pretty isolated you know, so that’s difficult.
I: Well, we’ve touched upon this already, but perhaps you’d like to add something… Have you witnessed any improvements in service provision for victims of sexual assault and rape?
P: The progress that I have witnessed was with Victim Support. It was always a good service, but it seems to be improving by the minute. I’m a very honest and blunt person, so I wouldn’t say this unless it’s a genuine experience. I have never, up until this point, worked with a client who has said that they felt ignored, or unsupported, or blamed, or shamed in any way by the service. They all praise the service very much, they especially praise Krista, especially foreigners! I work with foreign girls who say ‘ Victim Support is the best service, not even in my own country would I have been acknowledged to this extent’ . Unfortunately, the only flaw remains the attention they get from their lawyers. It’s a big problem, because while they might have great lawyers, possibly provided by Victim Support, unfortunately maybe lawyers aren’t trained in how to handle the emotional state of a person who’s been traumatized. And so to a lawyer, letting a client wait four weeks for a response on whether they’re going to have a witness or not… to a lawyer maybe this is general and matter-of-fact and just another case. But to a victim, every second that passes increases their anxiety, their stress, how they cope with their day. And some of these people, you know they actually cannot go to work. It ends up to a point where they end up on medication. Because the trauma isn’t in the moment that it happens, it just starts in the moment. So the legal system tends to retraumatize, the police force tends to retraumatize. So you’re not just working on the moment when the person was attacked, but the residual feelings, that all the things they have to go through, years of being in court.
I: So you’d be dealing with this too as you go through. Sounds very challenging!
P: From my end it’s not challenging, it feels very privileged. I feel like I have a very privileged position, in that I get to work with people who are at their most vulnerable. I don’t see what they go through as a challenge, I see it as a blessing for me that I am trusted to the extent that I can support them. My only frustration is only that I am lost for how to get them better services. And so in my work I have to deal a lot with their disappointment, and their sadness and their shame in relation to our service providers.
I: What about improvements in terms of general societal approach towards victims of sexual assault and rape specifically? Have you witnessed any? What is your take on this?
P: It seems to me that sexual assault is on the rise, and I think that people are still shocked every time. We hear it in the media, in the news, people are incredulous, and people like to believe that the person maybe did something, or said something or behaved in a particular way to invite the attack. And I think that people think like that because it lowers their anxiety that they are vulnerable themselves, or their family members or their kids. Because people worry… It’s not the Malta that we’re used to. We’re used to a very safe island, so the fact that your kids can be out with their friends and come home with the police, or that you are called because your daughter was taken away with an ambulance, is really scary stuff for us.
I: So, would you say that victim-blaming is widespread, or would you say that it’s not? Because based on what you’ve just said, it would seem that people tend to empathize with the victim generally, and worry that something similar might happen to their family members… But say, there may be more complex cases, where the victim isn’t your ‘stereotypical’ victim, and this happens quite often…
P: Well, I think it also depends on who you ask. At the cost of sounding a misandrist, I mean there is a chauvinistic attitude towards women being attacked. You will find men, still, in this day and age, who say : ‘Well, did you see what she was wearing? Did you see how she was behaving? She obviously was asking for it.’ You would be more hard-pressed to find women who would think like that. At the end of day, it also comes from the people who are providing a service, to support victims. So if you have people in the police force, people in the medical profession, who think still to this very day, that most women who make a report are making false reports out of vengeance or… if the police sort of transmit this message, it’s very hard for the population to change their perspective.
I: Right. What do you consider to be the most alarming outstanding issue in Malta when it comes to sexual assault and rape?
P: I recently did a talk for the police cadets, and although there is a bulk of people who are in the police force who still think in a very archaic way, it’s really refreshing that at least, most of the cadets I met, they’re very modern in their thinking. These are young people who understand that victim-blaming is just basically an excuse on a professional part to not do their job. … I think the most alarming outstanding issues is – and I’m sorry I’m harping on about this – it’s the discrepancy between the established police force and the growing, the new police force. There is a desperate need to bridge that gap.
I: Is there anything else that you would like to add?
P:No, I’m good.
I: Thank you very much.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Victim Support Malta.