When Survivors of Domestic and Sexual Abuse Report to the Police: A Professional’s Perspective

Disclaimer: There are many types of sexual violence and abuse that people can experience, and the range of words used in this blog intend to reflect this as much as possible.

By Erene Hadjiioannou

As a Psychotherapist specialising in the traumatic impact of sexual violence, I have a negative reaction to reading news about survivors that have reported to the Police. This is partly a professional response in having seen first-hand what the process of reporting does to survivors, as well as my human response as an individual person.

Reporting to the Police as a survivor is often disappointing, re-traumatising, and brings a sense of injustice to righting a wrong that has been forced upon you. Reading that only 1.5% of rape cases (a type of sexual violence) being charged or summonsed in 2018/19[1] brings light to the fact that something isn’t working, especially as this figure has been reducing every year for at least four years.

Added to this is a survivor’s difficulty in accessing therapeutic support during this time, which is affected by two factors. Firstly, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has guidance for what they term ‘pre-trial therapy’[2]. These guidelines state that survivors ‘should not be denied the emotional support and counselling they may need both before and after the trial’.

Additionally, conversations had in therapy are considered as:

‘Pre-trial discussions [that can have a] potential effect on the reliability, actual or perceived, of the evidence of the witness and the weight which will be given to in court. Pre-trial discussions may lead to allegations of coaching and, ultimately, the failure of the criminal case’.

Guidelines into Practice

How I explain this to clients who are thinking about, or have reported to the Police, is as follows: the facts of what happened, as they can recall them, are considered their evidence in the case. This evidence needs to be protected, and within the CPS guidelines this means we can’t talk about their memories or recollections of the sexual violence. We can, however, talk about the impact of them.

The second factor is the discrepancies amongst individuals and services that work with survivors to provide counselling and psychotherapy. In my working experience, this discrepancy is largely due to the conflict between wanting to offer the same level of therapeutic service to survivors as any other client, and needing to adhere to guidelines, particularly as not doing so might jeopardise a client’s search for justice.

I know this from managing a specialist service for female survivors, liaising with other professionals, delivering training for Psychotherapists and Counsellors who want to offer pre-trial therapy, and working with survivors themselves. What happens in practice is that there is often confusion around what can and can’t be offered.

Survivors are told they can’t access services[3], and if they can access a service, it may only be for brief pre-trial therapy rather than a longer number of sessions for those who haven’t chosen to report.

Disempowering Consequences

Let’s pause for a moment. What is being said here is that a survivor has less autonomy, less freedom of speech, less freedom of movement, and less choice than any other client. This is a massive issue when it comes to providing therapeutic support, particularly as clients do not expect this.

Simultaneously, Psychotherapists and Counsellors are forced into an ethical dilemma because telling clients they can’t speak about certain things goes against the ethos of talking therapy, and feels a punitive response to the enormous decision to report.

Dynamically, it is experienced as disempowering, silencing, and restrictive – all of which are elements of the original trauma experienced. Additionally, both practitioner and client are intruded upon by a third party, which is startlingly close to the traumatic experience. Both of these can add to the risk of re-traumatisation.

Different rules for perpetrators

It is worth pointing out here that the same rules do not apply to the perpetrator, as they can access any kind of support they wish to. Another layer to consider is how therapy notes are requested and used during the legal process, which reinforces the above issues for survivors at the receiving end of this [4].

That is not to say that notes are not helpful sometimes, as I am aware that a practitioner’s note of a disclosure can be used as corroborating evidence to support the weight of a survivor’s account.

Hearing a Survivor’s Account

My therapeutic approach is to promote re-empowerment of all aspects of a survivors’ self, and this is done in part by focusing on alleviating symptoms of mental distress. This can be any number of post-trauma symptoms, anxiety, depression, or anything else a client experiences.

I try to provide choice within a safe relationship, knowing that sexual violence occurs from human-to-human, and that often the perpetrator is known (there within the context of some kind of relationship) to the survivor before the abuse occurs[5].

As a Psychotherapist, I don’t ask the same questions as a member of the Police or legal professional cross-examining a victim. I don’t ask for dates, the sequence of where the survivor was touched by the perpetrator, what was said between them, etc.

Should a client wish to tell me what happened I respect that, and listen as bearing witness to what most of society doesn’t want to hear can be hugely reparative to the survivor. I understand that part of re-empowerment is telling your story your way, and I am particularly careful about language because it’s not my place to tell clients what words match their experiences.

With regards to taking notes, there is a similar dilemma here. I write notes for clinical purposes, and these are symptom-focused. Having notes requested as part of the legal process comes with the implication that notes need to be appropriate for court, and this is far from my mind as I write them.

I understand they are used to check a survivor’s account of what happened, but this is problematic in itself as there are several layers occurring before a note is written down.

A client recalls something in their own words, maybe for the first time. It is likely that this account is impacted by the traumatic event, as memories created at the time of severe stress can have gaps in them[6]. This is part of surviving the traumatic experience, as it’s too terrifying to be fully present in ourselves if we’re being sexually assaulted.

The practitioner is listening to what’s being said, monitoring their internal responses as part of the work, and considering the next effective therapeutic intervention. After the appointment they write some notes in their words. These notes are not a verbatim account of what the survivor has disclosed, and should not be considered as such.

Use of language

A common example is the fact that clients use words that make sense to them regarding what they’ve experienced. Therefore, a survivor might use the word ‘rape’ but this might not fit fit with the legal understanding of this term, which is the penetration of the vagina by a penis[7]. For some survivors using any word is re-triggering, and I have worked with many clients without knowing any details of what they’ve been through. In such cases, are we to assume that not speaking about it equates to it never happening?

Next Steps

My aim in writing this piece is to advocate for my clients, because I have seen the consequences of the challenges in reporting and seeking support as a survivor. The impact can be literally life-threatening. Although I have done my own work with legal professionals to better understand the process, the practicalities of working with a client who is pre-trial are extremely difficult, and much of it doesn’t make sense for someone who just wants to recover from trauma.

As a lone professional, I would welcome, and encourage, conversations between legal and therapeutic bodies wherever possible to enable support to be delivered to people who are vulnerable. At present, that is the only point we can agree on. Given that this is rarely felt by the people I work with in psychotherapy, my empowerment-based response thus far is to challenge this wherever possible in service of my clients.

Erene Hadjiioannou is a qualified Integrative Psychotherapist with a qualification in Integrative Psychodynamic Counselling. She has been seeing adult clients in a variety of services since 2010 to offer psychotherapy and counselling and is a member of the United Kingdom Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP). Erene works primarily from a trauma-informed and relational perspective, often using an embodied approach to talking therapy.

Inspiring Women Changemakers is a dynamic, women-led movement for positive social change: in business, in society, and in the world. We help our members to powerfully communicate, connect and campaign. Join us!