My name is Sarah and I have been working as an Independent Sexual Violence Adviser (ISVA) in the Adults team at STARS Dorset since May 2017.  When I tell people what I do, some make the ‘urgh!’ face, others say something like, ‘does all that really happen in Dorset?’ and some are interested in my work but not really sure what I do! An ISVA is a specially trained support worker for anyone who has been sexually assaulted, for those that want to report to the police and also those that decide not to report.

I work three days a week which means at any one time I support around 30 clients.  No one situation is ever the same and how someone deals with such an intimate attack and tries to recover from it is also never the same.  My role is to be there in the way my client chooses; for some this is the occasional phone call/how are you doing, until there is a significant update in the case, for others it is a weekly visit or phone call with intense emotional support. If a client chooses to report my support lasts for the entire criminal justice journey – and involves helping my client to try to make sense of the complexities of a police investigation, a Crown Prosecution Service charging decision, and potentially a criminal trial.  Whatever the outcome is, I am with you all the way.

On any given day I may have new referrals which have been allocated to me and I need to make sure I contact with new clients within 24 hours of a referral to STARS Dorset.  This initial contact can be so important to get right –  I try to make sure my client knows that support is available and how to contact me if they choose to, and when they are ready, that we can meet or speak on the phone to have a more in depth discussion.  During that next discussion is where I can really get an idea of how the client is doing, what immediate needs they may have (for example an appointment with the GP or sexual health clinic, or a referral to counselling) and in some cases it will be to arrange a time for the client to give their video statement to the police, which I can attend with them if they would like.  A client may be struggling with debts because of what has happened to them affecting their ability to work, or may need safety planning in the workplace, or may just need their university tutor to offer extra support and time for assignments – this is all practical support which an ISVA can help to arrange.  Alongside practical support is ongoing emotional support.  Many of my clients say they don’t want to burden their loved ones with their fears or feelings about what has happened as they don’t want to upset them or see them struggling to listen to what has happened, and so my role as a ‘professional friend’ I hope can be really helpful.

A big part of my role in terms of the support I offer my clients is managing the expectations of someone who has chosen to report what has happened to them to the police, including timescales.  In soap operas one week a person is assaulted, the next week is an investigation and the following week they are in court! Unfortunately the real world is not at all like this and so broadly discussing the various stages in the process and making sure my client is kept updated by police is really important. 

If the investigation does not produce enough evidence and the case is No Further Actioned, a big part of my role is supporting my client while they receive this news and providing further emotional support while they come to terms with this news and try to make sense of it, if one ever can.  Some clients feel that they did the best they could and cannot ask anything more of themselves.  Others understandably really struggle with fears that they were not believed and require ongoing support.

If a case is going to Court, my role can involve showing my client around Court before a trial has started to get a feel for the strangeness of a Court room, but also how to enter and exit the building safely, and how my client may wish to give evidence.  On the day of giving evidence I am with my client throughout the experience including sitting behind them while they are giving their evidence if they would like me to.  By this stage I often feel emotionally really invested in my client’s journey – during trial weeks it’s hard to think about much else other than what the jury will decide.  If the trial results in a guilty verdict and my client wishes to attend the sentencing, I will support them through this process, which can be a very powerful experience.  My role with a client ends when I am confident that they are ready to have me no longer support them… which I sometimes find really hard to do!

Being an ISVA for me means I have days where I am emotionally exhausted and days when I am really frustrated with some of the flaws in the current criminal justice machine - flaws which I hope are one day changed for the better to reflect the needs of victims.  But I work within an incredibly supportive team who have my back as I do theirs, and I would not be able to do this job without their support.  Most of the time though I feel so privileged to work in this sector.  It can be incredibly rewarding to watch people who have been so hurt begin to recover and to feel like I played a small part in that. 

To find out more about our ISVA service or to refer in head to our ISVA page Here.