Rape victim centre in Portsmouth marks 10-year anniversary

From left, Kim Nisbet, young person's independent sexual violence advisor, manager Mary Bridgman with Lindsey Dunsford, Carly Hickey and Jo Colmer, all crisis workers Pictures: Sarah Standing (161546-1592)
From left, Kim Nisbet, young person's independent sexual violence advisor, manager Mary Bridgman with Lindsey Dunsford, Carly Hickey and Jo Colmer, all crisis workers Pictures: Sarah Standing (161546-1592)

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For 10 years dedicated staff have been there for sex crime victims, offering support at traumatic times.

The Treetops Centre in Northern Road, Cosham, Portsmouth, has seen thousands of rape and serious sexual assault survivors.

Infant children and pensioners – men and women – have all been looked after in the specially-designed and built centre.

Set up at a time when rape victims could be left waiting for hours to see a police doctor, the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (Sarc), marked its 10-year anniversary yesterday.

The team behind the multiple award-winning centre invited The News inside to look at its work.

A decade ago rape victims reporting the crime to police could be left waiting to see a force doctor at one of six centres across Hampshire.

Essentially in a queue, a drink-driver could be seen as a higher priority as evidence of their blood alcohol level would diminish.

But for the years the Sarc has been running, the service run by Solent NHS Trust has sought to put victims their top priority.

Mary Bridgman, Sarc manager, has been involved since the centre was being developed, after Shirley Donnell, Hampshire’s former head of CID and Portsmouth City PCT’s director of finance, Pam Hobbs, pushed for the idea.

‘They agreed this was essential, they were the two driving forces behind it in 2004 to 2005,’ Mary says.

‘I could see what was happening, people were waiting.

‘That’s what they saw – rape victims were waiting to be examined by male doctors, mainly because we didn’t have many female doctors then. We’ve worked hard to get female doctors.

‘It wasn’t through anybody’s fault, it was just the way it was then.

‘It was a very different arena to work in 10 years ago.

‘So if you had a road traffic accident and they needed their blood taken and they were in custody or in hospital the doctor would maybe get diverted before their blood alcohol went.

‘That was a need that was identified as a priority more than to see a rape victim that could wait another couple of hours.

‘Whereas here, this is specifically victims of rape and serious sexual assault, and the doctor, or sexual offence examiner, has to be here within an hour.

‘That’s a major improvement, they have their own service, they’re not in a list.’

Crucially, people subjected to assaults do not have to go via police, but can self-refer to the centre, which is available 24 hours a day for over-16s.

With a medical suite, vital forensic evidence can be taken by female doctors and stored securely until the person wants to report the incident to police.

Victims are offered an informal chat with a police officer to discuss what would happen.

Pregnancy tests and screenings for sexually transmitted diseases can be carried out. The service also refers people to other agencies for additional help.

Rooms at the centre are designed with soft furnishings to welcome the person but are not too distinctive so as to stick in the mind.

If police refer the victim to the centre, which makes up to 90 per cent of all referrals, then an interview can be filmed in a room, with cameras mounted on the wall.

Detectives sitting in an adjacent room can monitor this on screen.

Shirley, formerly the detective superintendent in charge of Hampshire’s CID, says she hopes the centre has strengthened justice.

She says: ‘You can only expect that if we’ve got a place where you can process a victim through the forensic examination, process and support them through other agencies, that ultimately must be good to help secure a better prosecution.

‘If you don’t support the victim they don’t support you through the prosecution, you both need each other.’

Shirley adds: ‘It was recognising that police couldn’t do that on their own, there were other agencies needed in order to support the victim.’

Over the 10 years, the centre’s staff has seen 5,103 men, women and children.

In all, 4,136 women and 272 men were seen by staff.

Shockingly, 695 under-16s were seen, with an increase after the centre recruited a child Independent Sexual Violence Adviser.

Kim Nisbet, child ISVA, has worked at the Sarc for around nine years.

She helps youngsters aged between 13 and 16, although she can see older children.

‘I spend a lot of time speaking to schools and colleges and getting updates from the police.

‘I communicate on text, Skype, face-to-face, whatever works for them, they’re all different.’

Kim says the best part of her job is seeing how someone can change over the course of time they work together.

Mary adds: ‘You have to be professional and have your boundaries but the parents and people bringing them in are quite distressed.’

Crisis worker Carly Hickey has been in the job for about three months.

Part of her job is seeing people when they come in the front door, explaining what will happen and making sure they understand.

‘You don’t know who’s going to come through the door, whether you’re going to be going out at 3pm or 3am.

‘I just feel like we can do something to help someone in a time of crisis, even if it’s making a cup of tea and being there.’

Carly adds: ‘Every case is so different, you make sure you talk to people.’

n The team is accepting donations of small toiletries, email admin.treetops@solent.nhs.uk