A new sexual assault referral centre (SARC) for Bedfordshire has been heralded as a centre of excellence in the provision of facilities for victims of rape and sexual assault.
A standalone, purpose-designed facility, it contains two state-of-the art, fully equipped forensic examination suites which, while being technically compliant, are designed to put victims at ease by having a less clinical ambience than a hospital or medical centre. The centre also boasts tailored facilities for adults, teens and children, and working spaces for SARC staff and police officers.
But roll the clock back three decades and you’d see a very different landscape in the investigation of such cases, and in victim care.
I was working in the domestic violence unit in 2007 when we started to see more and more reports of what is now known as honour based abuse. It’s a very difficult area to police, as a lot of the reports were just that, reports, with victims not wanting their families to be prosecuted. We set up an honour based abuse unit, following advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with the Luton All Women’s Centre playing an instrumental part. Honour based abuse can take any form; physical or emotional abuse, forced marriage, female genital mutilation, rape and in extreme cases, murder.
When I meet victims for the first time, I take their DNA and fingerprints; just in case the worst does happen. We take them somewhere to keep them safe, often a hotel, until refuge is found, sometimes for several days. Victims need a friend; when they are first taken away from their families, friends, school, college, university, work, this is when they are at their most vulnerable. They are often isolated, lonely and frightened.
I’ve always thought policing is not just about fighting crime and disorder, it is also about offering friendship; reaching out just that little bit further and having empathy, so that victims feel able to open up. I give them my phone number to and speak to them whatever time of day it is. I hope that by being accessible and by being their first point of call that can help keep them away from danger.
Sometimes I get a call or text or email out of the blue, saying ‘thank you’ or ‘you saved my life’. I know then that the victim has become a survivor and this is why l do the job that l do.
Police Officer Esther Carroll has been protecting women from forced marriage since 2007 and was given the ‘True Honour’ award by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) for her work with victims in March.
When I joined the force I didn’t have a clear career path.
I had been a response officer for two or three years when I saw there were openings for trainee investigators in the child abuse unit, so I transferred and that’s where I learned my trade. The unit then expanded to take into account other areas of vulnerability – vulnerable adult abuse, modern day slavery, child sexual exploitation – which showed the evolution of the Public Protection Unit.