20 per cent increase in referrals at Sheffield Sexual Abuse Referral Centre since last year

Keeley Roe, Centre Manager and Forensic Examiner and Dr. Alan Billings, South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, pictured at the Sexual Assault Referral Centre. Picture: Marie Caley
Keeley Roe, Centre Manager and Forensic Examiner and Dr. Alan Billings, South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, pictured at the Sexual Assault Referral Centre. Picture: Marie Caley

'We believe you, we will help you and we will respect your decision on what to do next' - that is the message staff at the Sheffield Sexual Assault Referral Centre want to send out to victims across South Yorkshire.

The state-of-the-art facility, which is a satellite centre for victims of sexual abuse across South Yorkshire, opened over a year ago, and since then has supported 653 victims of sexual abuse.

The Anti-room at SARC. Picture: Marie Caley

The Anti-room at SARC. Picture: Marie Caley

It has seen a 20 per cent increase in the number of people coming forward since the facility was based at Rotherham hospital.

Centre Manager and Forensic Examiner, Keeley Roe, says she believes the rise in the number of referrals does not mean more sex crimes are taking place, but rather that more people are being empowered to come forward.

"I think these crimes have existed for many years, people are just gaining confidence and trust in reporting these crimes. Trust that services will keep their anonymity if they come as a self-referral, and trust that police officers will deal with it in a manner that allows them to feel in charge.

"We think it is also partially due to the promotion we are doing and the stereotypes being challenged out in society. And also with some high-profile cases getting the recognition they deserve so victims feel more confident in coming forward to report the crimes. "

The Video-Link room at SARC. Picture: Marie Caley

The Video-Link room at SARC. Picture: Marie Caley

Staff at the centre recognise that the process of reporting sexual abuse can be incredibly daunting, particularly when it comes to forensic samples being taken, and so all of the acute services are provided in-house.

This includes: all forensic medical examinations, crisis support and facilities where vulnerable witness video interviews can take place.

Keeley says this means that in most cases, victims will be able to do every part of reporting a sexual assault at the centre, allowing them to bypass going to a police station altogether.

And it doesn't stop there. From decking the family room out with cosy soft furnishings and a television to ensuring people using the service are given access to warm meals and cigarettes, the centre constantly listens to feedback from its clients to ensure the environment at the centre is as comfortable as possibly can be for those who use it.

The waiting area at SARC. Picture: Marie Caley

The waiting area at SARC. Picture: Marie Caley

"The building feels relaxed, it feels like a nice environment to come to, we want everybody to know we're listening," added Keeley.

Many of the people who come to the centre are plagued by guilt and shame, but Keeley explains that staff will always believe them.

"They say it's their fault, they shouldn't have had a drink of alcohol, they shouldn't have gone out of the house, that they shouldn't have worn the clothes that they wore, that they shouldn't have been with that particular male or female at the time and for every one stereotype there will be another 30 that society has out there. They're working through all of that, guilt and shame is a really big one.

"We're about saying all of this is not your fault. There's only one person who should be taking blame for this, and that's the perpetrator of this crime. So we try and strip that right down and say it's normal to feel guilty but let's try and leave a bit of that here before you leave."

An examination room at SARC. Picture: Marie Caley

An examination room at SARC. Picture: Marie Caley

The majority of people who use the centre have been referred by the police, but more and more people are referring themselves. A total of 50 people have referred themselves to the service since it opened.

People who self-refer can access any of the services the centre offers such as forensic testing and in addition to anonymity being offered right from the offset, clients are never pressured to report what has happened to them to the police.

The centre stores forensic samples for seven years, which means victims can choose to formally report the sexual abuse they have suffered at whatever stage in the process they choose.

South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Dr Alan Billings, says respecting victims' wishes and giving them the breathing space they need to make a decision on whether to report a sexual assault can make all the difference.

He said: "Victims lead the process. It's happened to them, it's horrible what's happened to them.

"They may feel brave enough and strong enough to go forward, and we hope they will, and there will be people there who will help them do that.

An examination room at SARC. Picture: Marie Caley

An examination room at SARC. Picture: Marie Caley

"But if at any point you feel 'no I can't go any further at this point', they may change their minds later, they can stop."

The centre is also set to introduce a live video-link to crown court for the centre's most vulnerable victims. This means they will be able to give evidence from the comfort of the centre, both literally and figuratively miles away from the often intimidating crown court set-up.

The court link will be the first of its kind in South Yorkshire, through which victims will be able to give evidence in courts across the country, and even across the world.

Dr Billings hopes this will help empower more people to give evidence in court proceedings.

He said: "It is difficult to get convictions for sexual assault, and that's something that concerns us, and I think this is one vital way in which we enable the evidence to be captured and to be presented properly and to have confidence in coming forward and making the case. So I think that we will see greater convictions and that's very important because in South Yorkshire we know there are issues around that."

The centre can be contacted 24 hours a day on ​0330 223 0938 and people can also contact them via their website here.

An examination room at SARC. Picture: Marie Caley

An examination room at SARC. Picture: Marie Caley