N.L. proposal would allow anonymous reporting of sexual assaults

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. — Sexual assault victims may soon be able to report attacks anonymously to police through third parties in Newfoundland and Labrador — part of a growing trend among provinces trying to find ways of protecting victims.

The provincial government's Committee on Violence Against Women and Girls is leading the development of a project that would allow complainants to share and document their story without the pressure of filing an official police report.

A designated third party, like a women's centre, would keep the victim's information and provide local police with anonymous details of the assault, so law enforcement can take note of possible patterns and alleged offenders.

Police can approach a group if a problematic trend appears, so victims have the option to come forward knowing law enforcement is already interested in hearing their story.

"Knowing you're not alone is a really important piece," said Linda Ross, president of the committee.

"They don't always want charges because they know what's going to happen when you go through the whole judicial process."

According to a 2014 Statistics Canada report, sexual assault is "the violent crime least likely to be reported to police," estimating that less than five per cent of sexual assaults are reported.

There were approximately 636,000 self-reported incidents of sexual assault in 2014, or 22 incidents for every 1,000 Canadians age 15 and older — unchanged since 2004, despite a decline for all other crimes over the same period.

According to a July 2018 Statistics Canada report, 14 per cent of reported sexual assaults in 2017 were classified as "unfounded" or baseless — significantly higher than other crimes, such as property offences that have an unfounded rate of six per cent.

Ross said the third-party reporting initiative is about "empowering survivors" with another way to share and document their stories.

"Anything we can do to put control in the hands of survivors and make them feel that it is about them … this way they've told their story, their story is actually on record," Ross said.

"We're hoping that what it does is give that increasing sense of one more thing to help them in dealing with this horrific thing they've been through."

Ross said police will only be able to investigate the reports once the third party has spoken to the victim, and the victim decides to come forward.

The province's privacy commissioner is also involved in the development process.

Ross said there is no definite timeline in place for the program's implementation, but they hope to have it up and running in the new year.

Royal Newfoundland Constabulary Chief Joseph Boland said while logistics are still in the early stages, the force supports the initiative and has consulted with other Canadian police forces about developing a protocol.

"The RNC is supportive of anonymous third party reporting and feels it will empower and support victims of sexual assault to come forward to an appropriate person whom they feel comfortable with," Boland said in an email statement.

Ross said the initiative stemmed from conversations with Peter Clark, the RCMP's recently retired assistant commissioner in Newfoundland and Labrador. He had been involved in establishing a similar program in the Yukon — where sexual assault rates are among the highest in the country, and most victims know their attacker.

Manitoba also moved to allow third-party reporting earlier this year.

In British Columbia, third-party reporting was developed after the violent serial crimes of Donald Bakker and Robert Pickton and the many unsolved murders along the Highway of Tears highlighted the need for vulnerable women to have alternative models of reporting assault.

Renee-Claude Carrier of Kaushee’s Place, a women’s shelter in Whitehorse that offers third-party reporting, said the initiative is not a complete solution to a widespread problem, but it provides victims of sexual violence with more options.

"We need more, we can't stop at just this one," said Carrier. "This is just one."

Kaushee's Place takes victims' accounts over the phone to accommodate the spread-out population, something Ross said Newfoundland and Labrador would consider for rural communities after the program's initial run in St. John's.

Holly McKenzie-Sutter, The Canadian Press

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