Working with sexual assault investigations

Sexual Offences Child Abuse Investigation Team


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Content type
Practice guide

July 2012

Mary Stathopoulos, a Senior Research Officer at ACSSA, interviews Patrick Tidmarsh, Forensic Interview Advisor, Sexual Offences Child Abuse Investigation Team (SOCIT), Victoria Police.

In response to a request by the Attorney-General in 2001, the Victorian Law Reform Commission produced Sexual Offences: Final Report. The report provided 201 recommendations, 36 were specific to the police handling and investigation of sexual assault complaints.

One of the recommendations centred on the establishment of the Sexual Offences Child Sexual Abuse Investigation Team (SOCIT). The SOCIT model consists of highly trained specialist detectives who not only investigate sexual crimes, but they are also trained in dealing appropriately with sexual assault victims.

The training is conducted by a Forensic Interview Advisor and in this Working With interview, ACSSA spoke with Patrick Tidmarsh, who fulfils this role as a consultant with Victoria Police. Patrick has been working in the field of sexual offending for 25 years. He has run treatment programs for adult sexual offenders and adolescents who sexually offend, including the Male Adolescent Program for Positive Sexuality (MAPPS).

The interview covers the "whole story" framework and some of the challenges and opportunities this approach encompasses for investigators and victim/survivors of sexual violence.

We've developed what we call the whole story approach to understanding sex offending and investigating sexual crime and sexual abuse of children. It's based on a very simple notion that although courts wish to and must, in one sense, prove that certain events happened in time and place, sex offending is primarily a crime of relationship. That relationship will have occurred before and during those events themselves.

If you don't investigate the whole story of that relationship, you won't understand why - when the offences came about - people did or didn't do what they did and didn't do: "Why didn't she tell mum? Why didn't she yell out when she knew there was somebody in the next room?". We're trying to get investigators to see that there's far too much focus on what victims do or don't do, and to balance that with not just why did she do that, why didn't she do that, but how did he get her to do that.

So you're looking for more context in order to understand the pressures that are going on. Is that something that's actually going to translate into the courtroom, or is that just for the investigators so that they can better understand the victim's point of view and the offender's point of view?

Absolutely. It will translate into the courtroom. I mean the first point is probably what you've just said. It's more likely to translate into the courtroom because investigators now see that the information regarding context is worth gathering. So we tell a whole range of stories from particular cases where there have been different kinds of grooming and manipulation and preparation for the offence from different kinds of offenders, either violent behaviour, manipulative behaviour, setting up the ground where even if children do report, there's no one left to report to. Or the grounds are really set up to see them as manipulative little lying children or she's a very promiscuous woman: "She would say that. She's having regrettable sex".

It's much more useful in the investigation and in the interviewing of the suspect to be able to put a thorough and comprehensive story of the relationship in the interview to get him to respond to that. People understand the world in terms of stories, so our idea is, rather than slice and dice this into a moment where that finger went there or that penis went there, it's tell me about the relationship between these two people from start to finish and then let me understand the context.

We are asking people to understand offending - how it happens, why people do things, how offenders get them to do things and what that looks like when they come in and tell us their stories. So why do [victims] put scratch marks on their arms when there was no physical violence per se in the offending? The answer is because they want people to believe them. Why do they say it was a stranger when it was their brother? Why do they? Why do they do that? How is sex offending set up by offenders to make that more likely to happen? How gullible are we that we keep falling for all these myths about how sex offending really happens?

What are some of the challenges you've faced in teaching investigators to broaden their view to the whole story?

When we present it to them, they say, this makes perfect sense. I'd never thought of it like this. It isn't about what the victim and the offender do. It's about the relationships in which they do it. It's so important for people to understand the relationship and the context in which the abusive behaviour takes place.

When they say, "Oh, what about the guy who jumps out behind the bushes and whacks a woman over the back of the head? She's never even conscious. How can that possibly be a relationship?". The answer is because he's still making her be what he wants her to be, even if the relationship for him consists only of humiliating her. For him, that's still generating a relationship. So we get guys who spend years generating relationships they think are love. We have men living in families they've terrorised who believe that they're teaching authority and family values. Each one of those relationships is different and each man is different in the way that he goes about it.

What's really important about that is each one of those relationships will have affected the way the victim then tells their story when they come forward and say, this is what's happened to me. Quite often they're really hard to understand, because they're complicated. It's very easy for us to make our minds up - about what is or isn't, or was or wasn't - on the basis of our own sets of beliefs, our own judgements, our own anxieties and so on. We think the better we teach people to gather the story of the relationship as a whole, the longer they'll take before they begin to make their minds up about where this investigation will go. That's the most important thing of all.

Within these relationships, what tactics are sexual offenders using to assault others? How are they creating situations where they can sexually assault somebody?

Well, I think we need to distinguish between what offenders do deliberately and consciously from what they do unconsciously, what they do directly and indirectly. So first and foremost, every case is somewhere on a continuum of the most predatory to the most opportunistic.

So they're all dependent on vulnerability. They're all dependent on the offender's attraction to sexually aggressive behaviour. Having a space that limits the capacity of the person to say no limits the capacity of the person to report afterwards, and most importantly, makes the person who is the subject of the abuse feel at least partly responsible if not the active initiator of whatever behaviour took place. So offenders are particularly good at setting it up so that people feel either confused or guilty, or both. If they can create those circumstances, then they're much less likely to get reported.

I've got a colleague who trains a lot using the story of a massage therapist. In this scenario with the massage therapist, he absolutely certainly knows exactly what he's doing from the moment anybody walks into his clinic, where he doesn't have a screen, doesn't leave the room when he asks them to disrobe but turns his back, turns back around with his clipboard halfway through their undressing to ask them a question - a seemingly innocent question - and so on.

Each move is just enough to be of a concern, but not enough of a concern to act. So by the time she is naked, uncovered, lying on her back on the massage table, 50 minutes into the massage, 30 of those little small things she's put to the back of her mind - oh, no, don't be silly, it's probably not that - and it's too late. So the answer to your question is these guys - consciously or unconsciously, directly or indirectly - are adept at taking people to places where they are vulnerable enough that they feel guilty. They feel fear of some kind - probably several different kinds - and are isolated enough to not say no, but to cooperate at that point in time as the simplest, safest option under those circumstances - just to cooperate, hope that it ends and leave.

At some point in the investigation you know the whole story, so you know where each offender is on that predatory to opportunistic continuum. Do different offending types require different therapeutic responses?

Well, drawing people to honesty about the choices they've made that led to that behaviour is different for every man, so yes, they require different responses in that sense. In therapy, you take the approach that we're advocating in investigation. Let's talk about the entirety of your relationship.

So it depends. Each one of those men will have to work out - we’ll have to work out for each of them - what was his pathway to the offence.

Do they need different treatment programs? I don't think you can just shove all offenders in the same group and expect them all to get the same intervention, or the same thing out of it. There's quite a lot of literature about putting some high-risk offenders in more intense programs. So by and large, yes, I think you can put them all in treatment, but you need to be careful who goes in which group and you certainly need to take each individual offender through the pathway they took to that kind of behaviour.

How do cultural understandings and myths of sex, gender, and rape infiltrate courtrooms in sexual assault cases?

Well, first to go back to where we are now, whatever we have as cultural scripts will be in the minds of the jury. It's pretty clear that juries come with constructs about how sexual relationships are supposed to take place and how abusive sexual acts are supposed to take place. Often, they're wrong. We have not found yet successful ways to help juries understand individual stories in a sophisticated enough way to get over a lot of the myths.

Many people still think sexual offending is perpetrated by strangers, that mostly people will be injured during a sexual assault when they won't be, that mostly there'll be forensics which there won't be, that there will be witnesses, that people will go straight to the police after something bad has happened to them because in every other kind of crime we do. Why wouldn't we with this? So we're still stuck with an awful lot of lack of awareness.

I mean, in terms of individual offenders and how they justify their behaviour, they are adept at using cultural myth and cultural stereotype and using people's perceptions to deflect away from their own behaviour, setting other people up as something - a slut, a whatever. They're very good at that.

How has technology - particularly the Internet and social media sites - affected sexual offending, if at all?

I suppose the influence of pornography - the spread and the breadth of pornographic image - means there's a greater degree of certain sexual acts that may not have been seen in rape cases and certain child abuse cases 10, 15, 20 years ago. So perhaps the level of offending may have shifted slightly. But by and large, nothing in sex offending has changed ever, except the Internet. The Internet has mainly changed people's ability to access illegal imagery and people's ability to connect with their targeted groups - mostly children and teenagers - away from the relative security of family and friends.

So rather than before, if you wanted to get pornographic images of the sexual abuse of children you would have to answer an ad in a magazine and use the postal service, now you can file share with like-minded people at the drop of a hat. You can find abusive imagery in 5 seconds on the Internet. Because offenders are very good at knowing where teenagers are, you can now access them without being visible to adults. Before, again, you'd have to become the coach or the scoutmaster or you'd have to draw people's children away from them in real time.

So there's less risk for perpetrators online?

I think so. I mean, the biggest risk is always ignorance, but aside from that, technology has definitely made the targeting and grooming of children easier. Teenagers will always want what these guys will offer. They will always want to grow up faster, have access to things ahead of when their parents want them to. They'll always want independence, danger, thrill, money, attention, validation, esteem building. They'll always want people to tell them that they're hot and fun. So for these guys, it's a gift to be able to do all that and have all that in a conversation with a child without their parent knowing you're having any of that conversation.

Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I suppose the last thing for us, is that in one sense this only counts if we get better results in court - on the other hand, that really doesn't matter at all. If people come and tell their story, whatever way they are dealt with, for as far as that story goes in the system - whether it ends up with a prison sentence, a finding of guilt, it doesn't get past committal, doesn't even get the brief authorised - as long as the people who come and tell their stories feel well treated through all of that process, that's a bonus.

We are one of the few areas of policing where an increase in reports is a requirement. It's a KPI (key performance indicator) that there's more acknowledged crime. That's very important to us, that people see this as a safe place to come and tell their story wherever it gets to, because the wheels of community myth about how sex offending happens or what people should or shouldn't do change over 30 years, 40, 50; but the quality of the treatment that you can get - we can change [that] relatively quickly. If we're good at it - we 400 investigators and teachers - if we're good at it, that's okay. It's a fascinating project. It's a very important project.