Assisting rape victims: ‘You are there at such an intense moment’
Olivia Walker: ‘You’re not emotionally involved and yet are still there, just for them’
Olivia Walker has been a volunteer with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre for five years. Working with victims of sexual violence appealed to her as a useful and important service. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times
Rape victims’ experience of the criminal justice system can be “horrific”, according to victim accompaniment volunteer Olivia Walker.
From making a statement to gardaí, an exhausting process that can take up to a day, to being medically examined at a Sexual Assault Treatment Unit (SATU), to finally – if the case makes it to court – having to give evidence in the presence of their rapist, means the process can be gruelling.
Walker has been a volunteer with the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre (DRCC) for five years. With her own children grown up, she wanted to “do something useful”.
Working with victims of sexual violence appealed to her as useful and important assistance.
The DRCC has been providing a court accompaniment system since the 1980s. Chief executive Noeleen Blackwell says victims of rape and sexual assault go though the legal process – from a legal point of view at least – alone.
While the alleged rapist will be legally represented, the victim is simply a witness to the case. Unless the victim’s past sexual history is being used in evidence, the individual will have no barrister in court.
“Even the barrister working for the Director of Public Prosecutions cannot really engage with the victim. They really are alone, and that is why we began providing the court accompaniment, because it is such an intimidating process and of all the crimes, rape is such an intimate, personal crime.”
Walker replied to an advert for volunteers. She was interviewed, underwent “pretty intense” training, and began on the DRCC helpline and on the SATU accompaniment at Dublin’s Rotunda hospital.
There are six SATUs in the State, where victims of rape or sexual assault get specialist care, and where physical evidence may be gathered for gardaí.
After two years, Walker began volunteering on court accompaniment.
Asked how court is for her clients, she says: “Baffling, frightening, lonely.”
They may have been waiting several years for the case to get to court. They may have told no one close to them about the case, and attend alone.
Some prefer that nobody close is there with them to hear the details. Some will have travelled long distances, sometimes with very little money. For most, it will be their first time in a court.
Very often, having prepared for the case, it is adjourned or delayed, which can be very difficult.
If it proceeds, Walker says, her client is generally the first to give evidence.
“I always sit somewhere they can see me, and tell them to make eye contact with me, if that helps.
“It’s tough and of course they’re nervous, but I think it’s also very important to have that moment, to be able to get up in court and tell what happened to them.”
If an accused is found not guilty, it can be “devastating” - though others are glad the case got to court at all, and that they were heard.
“To get to court the gardaí must believe them, and the DPP had to believe a conviction was likely. But the accused is innocent until proven otherwise, and the bar is set so high. The system is so weighed against the victim, it is almost understandable that people get off.”
Blackwell believes more could be done to protect victims of sex crimes during the legal process, such as having the right to give evidence by video-link if they prefer.
After the court cases, Walker never stays in touch with clients.
“There are clear boundaries. You are there for them at such an intense moment, when they may be very distressed.
“Your strength is that you’re not emotionally involved, and yet are still there, just for them. You can make a real difference, and then you’re gone and you never see them again.”