UPDATE: On Wednesday, Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley was asked to respond to this story and she said Alberta needs to do more to encourage sexual assault victims to come forward and get charges and convictions for perpetrators.
Her office told Global News a committee that was struck in 2015 to provide better supports for victims and identify gaps in the system, highlighted the need for guidelines for police officers responding to sexual assaults as well as standardized training for investigators.
That committee is currently working on developing guidelines that will address some of Debbie’s concerns.
Sexual assault victims often keep quiet because of fear, embarrassment or stigma, but a woman from Sherwood Park, Alta. said it was her interaction with RCMP that left her wishing she never reported what happened to her.
Debbie, whose last name Global News has agreed not to reveal out of privacy concerns, says she will never forget Aug. 17, 2016.
“I met somebody online. They came over and I was assaulted. Sexually assaulted. That’s when I decided to call the police about it.”
The response from RCMP was swift. An officer arrived at her door not long after she placed her call. But the knock at the door came from a single male officer, right after Debbie had been sexually assaulted.
“All the trust in men had been broken already, so having a female officer would’ve helped me be more comfortable with what I was about to do,” she recalled.
Mary Jane James, executive director of the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton, said the majority of sexual assaults are committed against women, so female officers are key.
“They’ve just been traumatized in the most horrible violation of human rights that there could possibly be – by a male – and they make that call, which is a very difficult call to make to begin with, and a male officer who they don’t know, know nothing about and have no relationship with, arrives at the door,” James said.
Debbie said even having two male officers would have helped her feel less vulnerable.
After giving her statement, Debbie said she asked the officer if she should go to the hospital. He, in turn, asked if she had showered.
“He said that because I had showered, there was no need for a rape kit. I didn’t even question it because he knows what he’s doing. My belief is that he knows what he’s doing.”
Again, James said that information is incorrect.
“The sexual assault response team can do that kit very effectively seven days after the fact, whether or not that person has showered.”
Debbie said the officer also forgot to take evidence with him and also mentioned he might have to call child protective services because her son was asleep in the next room while she was being assaulted.
“He told me that they’d have to discuss it and see if they were able to even press charges. That completely made me feel not believed. Everything that I’d known about the police and how I trusted them was just out the window.”
She felt she was being blamed for being assaulted.
“I had let the officer know I said no, several times. I got really upset and mad that he was trying to minimalize what happened to me,” she said. “I made it very clear that sex wasn’t on the table for discussion at all.”
James said it’s important for Debbie and other survivors to know it’s not their fault.
“Nothing that they did, nothing that they said, nothing that they wore would have stopped that violation from happening. It is only at the blame of the perpetrator.”
She added instead of judgement, sexual assault survivors need compassion – whether that’s from first responders or anyone else they choose to confide in.
“Often the journey of their trajectory towards getting past this is based on how they were treated and how they were responded to after they disclose.”
James said the best response is to listen and offer support.
“They need to hear three simple words: I believe you. I’m sorry this happened to you. What can I do to help?”
That’s not what Debbie received. The whole experience left her feeling revictimized, so she shared her concerns about the RCMP officer who came to take her statement with the RCMP Civilian Review and Complaints Commission.
“I felt almost as violated as I did when I was raped. I felt like, ‘I’m here to get help. I need your help.’ They fell short,” she said. “I probably shouldn’t have even called. That’s how I felt.”
The next morning, a friend encouraged Debbie to go to the hospital. There, she had a rape kit done and was told she suffered internal injuries in the attack.
Global News reached out to the RCMP to hear how they handle sexual assault cases.
Watch below: Following a Sherwood Park woman’s complaint to the RCMP about how she was treated when reporting a sexual assault, the RCMP agreed to sit down with Global News to talk about how they handle sexual assault cases. Sarah Kraus reports.
Cpl. Kim Mueller is a long-time RCMP officer, based out of the Parkland County detachment.
She chooses to handle the bulk of sexual assault calls in her area and said she was “horrified” to hear that Debbie wished she never reported her rape after her experience with a Strathcona County RCMP officer.
“I personally believe that sexual assault is one of the worst crimes because it’s traumatizing. It’s not just a physical act, but it also attacks that person mentally,” she said.
Over the years, Mueller has chosen to take specialized training to assist victims of sexual assault. Most Mounties only learn about sexual assaults through basic training at Depot.
Advocates like James want that to improve. The Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton offers training classes that first responders can take.
“It takes an extraordinary amount of courage to make that first step and call the police and when that’s done, we need to do everything we can and support our police officers to have the resources to ensure that they respond to that survivor appropriately and compassionately.”
Mueller said personally, she believes there’s always room to improve, but additional training means there’s less time for officers to be on the streets.
She said the RCMP generally try to have a female officer investigate sexual assaults against women but admits that isn’t always possible.
“We have some detachments that don’t even have a female working at them. That’s unfortunately kind of the nature of our work. We have a predominantly male workforce in policing,” Mueller said.
Even at her own detachment, sometimes she is unavailable when a sexual assault victim comes in.
“So unfortunately, maybe someone less experienced is forced to do those kind of preliminary steps with our victim.”
There’s no defined protocol when an officer investigates a rape to distinguish it from any different from any other crime.
“We don’t have a set policy to say: ‘Lady on day 2? Do this.’ We can’t. There’s so many situations we respond to,” Mueller explained. “Policing is such a vast career. We could be going from a collision one moment, to a break and enter the next, to a homicide, to a sexual assault. That’s our gambit of things that we do.”
In her experience, Mueller directs victims to the hospital and calls the sexual assault response team about a rape kit. Debbie’s officer didn’t do that.
“Maybe that person needs to learn,” Mueller said. “I’m not trying to point blame. I don’t know who it was.”
“Maybe they lacked a little empathy. Sometimes that’s how we learn in this job. We learn from our mistakes unfortunately.”
Debbie said that’s not acceptable.
“I don’t want him to be fired, I want him to be trained in how to treat someone who had just been raped. I’d like him to acknowledge how his behaviour made me feel – and not only acknowledge it, but I would like an apology.”
Mueller started crying when she heard how Debbie felt about her experience with the RCMP.
“I am upset if someone feels that we didn’t treat them the way they should’ve been treated. I would like to genuinely apologize to that person.”
Debbie wants to see the RCMP make changes to how officers respond to sexual assaults. She believes calling the hospital and speaking to sexual assault response team nurses should be mandatory.
“The process definitely needs to change and I think it needs to start when the first call comes in.”
Since Debbie filed her formal complaint, she was assigned a new officer – a woman – who Debbie said “was absolutely amazing. All I wanted was to be treated with respect and like I was important.”
After another investigation, no charges were laid in Debbie’s sexual assault but she’s still happy she shared her story.
“It’s nothing to be ashamed of – what happened. It’s like getting robbed or having your house burned down. It happened to you. It’s not something to be ashamed of.”
She’s hopeful making her experience public will prevent at least one other victim from going through what she did.
“Hopefully someone can see this and keep it in the back of their mind. If it does happen to you, just go to the hospital,” she said while fighting back tears.
“I was so upset with how I was treated. I wasn’t able to heal from the actual thing that happened to me. I had to worry about fighting. I directed the grief that I needed to feel into anger against what the officer had done.”
Watch below: Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley says a committee has been struck to improve supports for sexual assault victims in Alberta and identify gaps in the system. Sarah Kraus reports.