Sexual Assault Article Series – Interview with Sexual Assault Services Coordinator, Krista Tabone

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19 Oct Sexual Assault Article Series – Interview with Sexual Assault Services Coordinator, Krista Tabone

Click here to listen to a podcast of this interview

I: This is the first article of our themed series focusing on sexual assault. Today we’re speaking with the services coordinator Krista Tabone. Krista is in charge of the Care for Victims of Sexual Assault service. Hi Krista!

K: Hi Izzy

I: Ok, so to start us off, could you explain what Care for Victims of Sexual Assault service is and what its aims are?

K: Sure. CVSA was previously known as SART, which stood for Sexual Assault Response Team and we changed its name in 2015 to reflect some changes in the service. Basically, the whole aim of CVSA is to provide better care and services for victims of sexual assault and rape. We provide social work services, emergency social work services when victims either present at hospitals or at police stations, and they can stay with them throughout the process of the hospital investigation, medical investigation, forensic and any police investigation which happens at the first presentation. We then offer psychological services to anybody who feels that they want to deal with this trauma in a therapeutic environment… We offer free full legal representation as well, which means that we’ll see the client through to the court, we’ll follow up with the police, we’ll keep them informed about anything that is going on and we offer any other practical support that the client might need. It might include interpretation, it might include accompanying the client to court, or any other needs that may be arising from the sexual assault.

I: OK, great. So what’s your role exactly in this service?

K: I take care of the coordination of the service so I, as a representative of Victim Support, coordinate the social work roster and I also allocate the cases to the necessary psychologists or lawyers and so on. I also keep in touch with the hospital, the GU clinic, the police and I manage the individual cases so as to make sure that everything is being done as it’s supposed to. I meet with the victims as well the first time… not immediately when they present after an assault, but I’ll make an appointment with them afterwards if they want to and we’ll go through their case so that we’ll see what any arising needs are, so that we can individualize the care plan. And then I do a lot of background work as well, which includes discussions with the ministries, the hospitals, the police about protocols and so on. We do awareness-raising as well about prevention for sexual assault, where you can go and seek help if you’re sexually assaulted, what to do…

I: So victims would be informed of the services Victim Support Malta offers when in hospital?

K: Yes, if a victim presents at hospital after they’ve been sexually assaulted, either at Emergency or at the Obstetric Department, they will be asked whether they would like a social worker to be present for the duration of their case, and the social worker will basically help them to make sure that they access the full, you know, extent of services that are available to them, or even if they don’t access them, at the very least, that they are aware of them, so that they can access them in the future should the need arise.

I: That’s great. Have you noticed over the years, since you’ve been working on this service, any patterns, similarities between and across cases that you’d like to speak about a bit?

K: There have been a few patterns. One thing that is certainly prominent, is that the majority of reports that we get tend to be from victims who either do not know the perpetrators or who are acquaintances with the perpetrators, which conflicts the research a lot. Research indicates that the majority of sexual assaults would occur either in a domestic setting, or by an intimate partner. Generally the perpetrator tends to be known and well known. And this concerns us a bit, because we don’t think the situation is different locally, what we think is that because of the particular context of Malta, people who experience sexual assault and rape in this manner do not feel free and comfortable to come forward and this is something that worries us a lot. We also noticed that foreigners are more likely to report and to see through a legal investigation, than locals are, which could indicate a number of things, one of which might also be, again, the fact that they haven’t been raised in this tight-knight small community, where you can’t walk down the street without meeting someone you know. It might have an impact… It might also be that foreigners are raised, potentially, to have a bit more awareness of what their rights are when compared with Maltese. There might be a number of indicators, but that’s definitely a trend that we’ve noticed.. Something else that we’ve noticed which is somewhat alarming is that a lot of people who have come to us because they have been sexually assaulted in the past couple of years, have very… significant black-outs of the period that they were sexually assaulted, and routine drug tests don’t seem to turn up drugs in their system, or not a high enough amount to constitute a black-out. Now again, black-outs can occur for a number of reasons, they could be trauma-based, they could be alcohol-induced. This obviously offers its challenges, and when it comes to the criminal investigation, because it limits obviously the victim’s testimony of the sequence of events. So it concerns us in that manner, but it also concerns us because we are unable to identify what is happening to these girls, and it would really help for prevention.

I: Yeah, of course. How about differences across cases? Does something strike you as being different today than it used to be when you first started off?

K: Well, there is one thing. When we started off we got a lot of people who were assaulted many years ago, so it was really clear how intensely the service was needed, because we would get people who came who were assaulted months ago, years ago… with some people it was 8 years ago. With some people… I mean, we had an instance where somebody had been assaulted 40 years prior, which was quite phenomenal. So I think that would be the biggest difference.

I: So now you don’t get any cases of the kind?

K: We don’t get…I think that people who heard about the service through media at the time would have accessed the service there and then sort of… I think now we’re getting more.. more commonly, we tend to get people who are raped and sexually assaulted at the very least within the year, not necessarily, you know, decades before.

I: Which I guess is a good thing…

K: It’s a good thing, it’s also, I mean…I’d also like to make a point of saying here that it’s never too late to seek help and support. And these services are not time-bound, you don’t have to come within a year, you can come… as I said, clients have come decades after…it’s always good to seek help. I am glad that people are coming in the immediate aftermath of the assault, or soon after the assault has occurred, because it means that people are getting the help and support that they need before the trauma has time to fester. So it’s always good, because it helps people to move on quicker.

I: My next question is a bit more personal. What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

K: I have to stick to one?

I: No, you can mention a few…

K: One of the most challenging aspects that we find is reaching out to male victims of sexual assault. In our entire history, we’ve dealt with … I mean we’ve been running the service for two years, just over, we’ve had about 80 clients, and one has been male, which is really concerning, because and then when we talk to the GU clinic they tell us they have a number of instances where there have male victims of sexual assault and rape, but they’ll just go and get medically tested and then they don’t access any other services…

I: They would inform them?

K: They would inform them, yes they will certainly inform them, but they don’t come. Which worries me, I mean…

I: I don’t know if you have this type of information… would they know about VSM prior or would they be informed at hospital?

K: I mean, I don’t have the kind of information to say whether or not they’ve been informed prior… People could come across it on TV, they could come across it on Facebook, but then again I do believe that unless you have a particular interest in the field, or you have experienced something, or somebody that you know and love has experienced something, you might not really absorb the kind of awareness-raising that is put out. So there’s that aspect… I know they are informed about our services at the hospital, even at the GU clinic, but obviously there’s no obligation for them to come forward and we wouldn’t want it to be that way. But it does concern me that we have a number of men who are experiencing trauma, there are services which are available to them and they’re not accessing them. So for me, that would be one of my greatest challenges: reaching out to men and making them feel safe enough to come forward. That’s something that’s really concerning… other challenges would be … the legal investigations when it comes to…when there isn’t enough proof, enough physical evidence that an assault has taken place. Very often we are faced with situations where we have victims have been coming to us for years, have been accessing therapy, we’ve seen them improve and then you know, we need to deliver this news that listen, you know, I don’t think that the investigation is going to continue. Or from how the investigation is being presented, the courts aren’t convinced that there’s enough evidence to move forward with charges. And that’s traumatic for me, so I can’t imagine what it’s like for the victims. But it’s horrible, I mean, having to break that news to somebody and having to see the fact that they’re starting to gain control over their life and all of a sudden, this person has crushed them again. So that’s certainly a challenge in relation to the work.

I: Can I ask you if you’ve witnessed any improvements in service provision for victims of sexual assault since you’ve started?

K: Well, yes since I’ve started, I’d say, it’s been a bit of… it’s been highs and lows. Definitely, services have certainly improved because prior to the launch of this service there were no specialized services for victims of sexual assault and I think we’re doing well. The feedback that I get from our clients is that we’re doing well, and they are given the opportunity to provide anonymous feedback about any of one of our services. So if we weren’t, I’d hope to be informed. Any cases that we’ve had, we’ve always managed to deal with them, we’ve always taken the attitude of working hand in hand with the client, we value the client as an expert in their own lives and we make sure that whatever we’re doing with the client is something that they are fully informed of and, you know, that they want to do. So in that sense I do think it’s improved, I think there’s still room for improvement… there are a number of stakeholders who need to be involved in instances of sexual assault including the hospital for medical reasons, including forensic experts which are appointed by the court, including the police, including the courts, including psychologists, potentially court-appointed psychologists as well, lawyers etc. And I think that the best that we can do is continue to work together to continue to develop protocols and standards of procedures, which ultimately benefit the victim. We really need to move towards an approach which allows the victim to feel safe and comfortable, to be open about what has happened. We’re dealing with people who very often… very often don’t have a clear account of what has happened to them. But what do we do? If we’re missing bits, we fill the gaps. And therefore very often, some people, including you know, hospitals staff, police staff etc. may interpret the version of events that is provided by the victim as inconsistent, whereas in reality it’s not the case. It’s the case where the person is desperately trying to remember what has happened to him or her, and at the same time, they’re trying to provide this very important information to the people who are charged with their care at that point in time. So it can be very challenging. So that’s somewhere where we can improve as well, I think. I think we can improve if we take a non-blame associated attitude whenever we’re dealing with victims of sexual assault and rape. At the end of day, you know, we should be gathering a version of events which is, what the person can provide.

I: Research shows that trauma can affect memory…

K: Yes, research shows trauma can affect a lot of things: memory, affect, energy… these are all things which are very highly impacted, especially in the hours after a sexual assault. No matter how much you know that after you’re sexually assaulted you shouldn’t shower, you should just go to the hospital and whatever…you’re going to go home and sleep, if you’re exhausted. No matter what you’ve heard, or read or seen, once it happens to you it’s a completely different story! And we’re not doing anyone any favours by allocating blame and judgement to people when they don’t do things in the way that we think they’re supposed to do it. In reality, the only we’re doing is aggravating the situation, make it more likely that the person is going to be hesitant to tell us the truth and that is not something that we want.

I: Yeah, definitely…So I’ve asked you about improvements in service provision, but I’m interested in knowing what you think about improvements more generally, when it comes to society’s approach towards victims of crime.

K: OK. There’s been.. I would say… I don’t know whether it’s the people that I encounter that have changed attitude, or whether it’s Maltese society that has changed attitudes, but I would say that there has been a positive shift in the way people perceive victims of sexual assault and rape, in the sense of… I do see less doubt, I do see less victim-blaming, I do see more willingness to help in general attitudes. I think, again, the fact that Malta is becoming more multicultural helps a lot in this as well. Because, I mean, over here we established a service specific for victims of sexual assault two years ago. Abroad, these services have been established for decades, you know. Prevention campaigns about sexual assault have been going on for years, so obviously people are a little bit more aware of what kind of attitudes are more beneficial towards people who have experienced this kind of things. So obviously, having more foreign blood in Malta helps, because there is a nice amount of integration and these beliefs circulate, and that’s great. Services are also more aware, which I think helps. There’s a big effort in communities where especially people who are working in Malta in the field of women’s rights – we are not a women’s rights service as such, we provide services for everyone, but rape does to an extent fall under that umbrella of women’s rights when women are victims. So there’s a big effort by services to work together, including NGOs and public sector, so as to ensure sort of like that any attitudes that need to be tackled are tackled and to highlight any issues that there are and to work together to see what needs to targeted societally. And I do think that that has an impact. I mean, I can’t measure it… but I do think that there has been a change and a positive one.

I: That’s great. What do you think however, is the most alarming outstanding issue? Because I am sure that even though there have been improvements, there are still issues. There are everywhere… what about locally? The most alarming outstanding issue in Malta in relation to victims of sexual assault and rape…?

K: The most alarming outstanding issue is that people become sexually assaulted and people become raped, essentially. I think, we still have very much… we do have a culture, we do a very typical small-community culture over here where we are inclined to protect the people who we know and… For example you know, if someone were to come up to me and tell me my brother attacked someone, my first reaction is going to be ‘No way, you misinterpreted it, what did you do?’, which is not great if you’re a victim. So I think that is one of the most alarming and outstanding issues over here. It also doesn’t help that people who work within… people who come in contact with these people as part of their day-to-day work may have some sort of the contact with the perpetrator, may know them in some way, form or manner, they may have had prior contact with the police in some way…and that might not help either when it comes to…Sometimes we may have a bit of a problem – and I don’t think this is a Malta problem, I think it’s a human problem – where we kind of think that we know someone, and we think that we know someone based on the way that they present themselves, or based on the fact that we have a history with them. When it comes to victims of sexual assault, very often people think that they know them based on the way that they present themselves and something that I think that we really need to deal with is the fact that we’re not all experts… even if we do work in this field, we’ve probably all got our area of expertise and we kind of need to be aware of what the remit of that is. We can’t just assume that we know how somebody is supposed to present in relation to their physical presentation and their affect and the way that they speak, the way that they dress… and we can determine whether or not this person is genuine. Because it makes no sense, really. People can present in many different ways, and something that we definitely know, I mean, both from our own experience with clients, and from research, is that anyone can fall victim to sexual assault and rape. There is no typical victim. The typical victim is not a young, beautiful person who likes to party and foolishly walks home alone late at night! It’s not the case! People get raped when they’re sober; people get raped when they’re dressed in you know, polo necks.. whatever they’re called… turtle necks; people get raped when they’re with their boyfriends sleeping at home in their own bed; people get raped when there are children in the house; people get raped by ….

I: ‘ relatives…’

K ‘ by relatives! People get raped in clubs; people know their perpetrators; people don’t know their perpetrators; men are raped. And I think all of this is very difficult for us to grasp. And I think that would be probably be the most outstanding issue – that we still hold on to this idea that there is a typical rapist and there is a typical rape victim. And that can make it very hard for someone who doesn’t fit that typical description to come forward.

I: ‘ So, moving on and looking at the future, what are your hopes and dreams for this service?’

K: ‘My hopes and dreams for this service are that we will have a one stop shop for victims of sexual assault, with a multidisciplinary team which is dedicated towards putting the victim first. So you’ll have a team of doctors, lawyers, social workers, psychologists, and you know, people of related disciplines who all work together in a team manner, in which no team member is of greater expertise than the other, but in which all team members have a different expertise – a medical, a social work, psychological, whatever – and that their primary aim is the wellbeing of the victim. And I think it’s something that we haven’t actualized yet, you know, when we work with victims of sexual assault, with the exception of Victim Support Malta, because we have a specialized service, other departments who work with victims of sexual assault, it’s just part of a very big picture. It’s part of a thing that they do during their day, you know. Doctors will come and investigate a victim of sexual assault and then go and help somebody with a caesarian later on. It’s a very different concept. So I do think that we need a team of people with a dedicated mindset and a victim-centered approach to work directly with victims.

I: Let’s hope to see that. Is there anything else you’d like to add, or would like the public to know about this service, VSM?

Well, I’d like the public to know that Victim Support Malta is available, I mean, this isn’t our only service, but this is my service. I’d like people to come forward if they need help and people are free to call if they would like advice on how to deal with friends or relatives or colleagues who have been through something similar. Or maybe they want some kind of information to pass on to someone that they know… I want to say that more than anything else, accessing services can be very daunting. You know, you never see these adverts on TV or on Facebook and think : ‘Ah ok, let me take this down, one day I might need it’. You go ‘ Oh my God, these poor people who might need it!’. So it can be very daunting when you get to the point where you have to say: ‘ Ok, I need this service’ and I think that best thing I can say to the public is just: be kind to people! If someone’s going to come up to you and tell you that they’ve been through such an extreme trauma, the least thing that they need to hear is any variation of doubt, or you know…

I : Scepticism…

K: Scepticism. What they need, you know, is concern and care at that point in time, and people who are going to try and help them to regain control over their life. Because essentially, that’s what it’s all about : regaining control over your life. Because your life should be your own and nobody else should be allowed to affect it in that manner. So I think that’s what I’d like to add : just be kind to other people and that’s all it really takes and the rest will follow.

I: Well, thanks for that and thanks for your time today, Krista.

K: You’re very welcome!

I: It was great to talk to you!

K: It was lovely talking to you too, thank you.

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