September 30th, 2012
Patrick Tidmarsh knows sex offenders: their tricks and twists and weasel ways. He knows how they think and how cununningly they manipulate their victims into behaving in ways others can find hard to fathom. But what he couldn’t understand was how the stories of sex offenders and their victims unfolded inside a courtroom.
”I was sitting in court listening to people’s stories – having come from young people and adult [sex] offenders telling me in great detail what it was they did and how they did it and how they manipulated people. That was not being represented in court in a way that I understood, there was a bit missing,” says Tidmarsh who, after years of rehabilitating juvenile sex offenders, is now training specialist detectives in how to understand and better interview sex offenders about their crimes.
The missing bit, as Tidmarsh saw it, was not the specific details of the crime but all the events that led up to it. The relationship between the predator and his victim, the power dynamics, the context. And so he, together with psychologist Mark Barnett, was hired to work with a team of senior police to rethink the training for detectives specialising in sex offences.
They devised and now teach ”whole story”, the idea being that when police take statements from victims and alleged perpetrators they should extract all the details about both the crime and everything that led up to it.
One of the key changes was to get detectives to understand that victims of sex offences often do not behave as you would expect them to.
Children keep secrets of sexual assault for years, women often don’t scream for help or in anger when they are indecently assaulted in the midst of a crowd.
”Whole story” training pushes the detective to get beyond what happened and think about how the offender manipulated his victim to behave the way they did even as terrible things happened to them.
Victoria Police’s attempt to reset how sexual offences were investigated followed an explosion in clinical knowledge about sex offenders over the past two decades. So much more is now known about who they are, why they do what they do and how they manipulate people, organisations and situations into often unintentionally aiding their criminal endeavours.
Tidmarsh would not comment on the case of ABC employee Jill Meagher whose body was found on Friday. Adrian Ernest Bayley, 41, of Coburg, was charged with Mrs Meagher’s rape and murder. The case is being handled by the homicide squad. In most sex-offence crimes, the victim survives, although traumatised.
The work of Tidmarsh and his colleagues forms part of a two-pronged approach by Victoria Police as it moves to better respond to sex assault and child victims. As well as the new training, specialist units and centres have been set up, all aimed at reducing the trauma many victims feel the justice system inflicts upon them.
In criminal justice, says Tidmarsh: ”The biggest shift has been from the ‘what’ to the ‘how’. From courts and police having to know what happened – what was done on what day to what person – and to move back to interpret how it happened.”
The ”how” is so vital, he says, because the reality of most sex crimes is that how the victim behaves – both at the time of the crime and afterwards – can be counter-intuitive to people who have no experience in the area.
”The reason that it is counter-intuitive is because of what offenders do to manufacture the way in which the offence takes place and it makes people react in some very strange ways,” Tidmarsh says.
The other grim reality particular to sex offences is that in many cases there is no physical evidence. While people think that rape victims, especially children, will show physical signs of harm, the difficult truth is that in most cases they don’t.
”There is hardly ever physical evidence of penetration, even on quite young children. If you listen to a doctor, the reason for that is pretty gruesome – those body parts are actually designed to accommodate things,” he says. ”But, even so, that’s counter-intuitive for most people, you’d think that if something happened to someone against their will, surely there would be evidence of that. But the explanation is … also because the person at that point co-operated, almost inevitably co-operated.
”To understand how and why they co-operated – submitted, complied, whatever word you use – you just can’t understand that unless you have found out about the entire relationship up until that point, whether it was two minutes or two years.”
An example of this new concept at work is the recent case of a woman who was sunbaking alone on a crowded Victorian beach.
She was approached by a man who, despite people being close by, indecently assaulted her.
The woman did not cry out or seek help. When she met up with her boyfriend not long afterwards, she did not tell him what had happened. It was not until the next day that she told her boyfriend about the assault and two weeks passed before she reported the crime to police.
When her case came to the magistrates court, it was pure luck that the prosecutor trying the case had a colleague who, the day before, had undertaken training in thinking about sex offences from the victim’s perspective, and had returned to the office with details about the new approach and tactics.
When the defence counsel rose to question the victim along the lines, ”you expect us to believe that on a crowded beach …”, the prosecutor stood up and objected, pointing out there could be many explanations for why the woman acted the way she did other than the fact that she was not telling the truth.
The magistrate agreed, shutting down the line of questioning.
”Most people don’t yell and scream, because they don’t want to die or get hurt, or they’re in total shock at what’s happened and are left frozen. There are many, many reasons why that woman did the most usual thing,” says Tidmarsh.
”It is counter-intuitive. What we want her to do is to punch him in the face or tell him to f— off or get all the bystanders to wrestle him to the ground and injure him slightly in the process so we get our own back. That is the story that we all want but it just doesn’t happen like that – or very rarely.”
Tidmarsh’s expertise was gained over the 14 years he spent as the co-ordinator of the male adolescent program for Positive Sexuality, which works to rehabilitate sex offenders aged from 10 to 21 years. Evaluations proved the program had an extraordinarily high success rate – 95 per cent, one analysis found – in stopping recidivism among attendees.
After so long working in that field – he also worked with adult sex offenders jailed in Ararat – Tidmarsh was attracted by a job advertisement placed by Victoria Police as it sought to implement the recommendations of the 2004 Victorian Law Reform Commission’s review of sex offences.
One of the key focus areas was on how to improve the system for victims. The inquiry reported: ”Many complainants in sexual offence cases find their experience of the criminal justice system acutely distressing.”
As the system’s gatekeepers, police were challenged to reform. In those days sex-assault victims who reported to police had their statements and evidence taken by members of the sex offence and child abuse (SOCA) units, usually female officers, who then parcelled up the case and handed it over to detectives. Their task was to juggle the investigations of sex offences with those of factory break-ins, car thefts and the rest of a suburban detective’s caseload.
The victims and their advocates told the inquiry that this system exposed them to further trauma: they had no single point of police contact, and while the SOCA officers were often sympathetic, the (generally) male detectives were not always so understanding. These feelings of alienation, and worse, only increased as they headed towards the adversarial environment that is a courtroom.
The wheels of justice grind slowly, there is no such thing as overnight change. But eight years after the Law Reform Commission’s final report, the police force has experienced momentous cultural change.
First up was the decision to make the investigations of sex offences and assaults on children a specialist area. No longer would investigators have to juggle the demands of hunting burglars with tracking child abusers and rapists.
The new sexual offences child abuse investigation teams (known as SOCIT, the police love an unwieldy acronym) feature specially trained senior detectives who investigate their cases from start to finish.
It is they who take the victim statements, investigate offenders and follow their cases through the court system.
Next the police trialled ”multi-disciplinary centres”, one-stop sex-assault shops, if you will, at which SOCIT detectives as well as Centre Against Sexual Assault counsellors and the Department of Human Services are all under the one roof.
The pilot centres – in Mildura and Frankston – proved so successful that the force has rolled out another centre in Geelong and has been funded to open three more.
In Mildura, Detective Sergeant Norman Tink has worked under both systems. ”I have to say the SOCIT approach is 100 per cent [better than] … the other one … Now the victims only have to tell their story once when in the past they might have needed to tell it several times.”
Which is where the ”whole story” training came into the picture. By improving police understanding of victims and offenders and how to interview them, the theory was that they would become better at evidence collection.
Tony Breen, a policeman for 26 years – 10 as a detective, including three years spent investigating sex crimes – now trains SOCIT detectives in this area. More than 200 police have been through the specialist four-week course and there is a 12-month wait to get a place.
”What we are trying to do is to get the stories out to investigators and to prosecutors and ultimately to the judiciary to say: We are hoping to get the focus off what the victim did [and on to] how the suspect got him or her to do what they did or didn’t do,” Detective Sergeant Breen says.
Crown prosecutor Anne Hassan, a sex offence specialist at the Office of Public Prosecutions, welcomes the work being done by police. She says the changes were particularly crucial when dealing with child victims. ”Essentially it is the statement taken by police that forms the evidence in chief, and that’s why it’s so important,” Ms Hassan says.
The new training, in her experience, has seen most, but not all, specialist police become better interviewers.
”What we’re seeing is the police inviting the child to begin in the first place with an open narrative, not butting in with questions but letting the child speak and then moving back, asking questions on the basis of what has been revealed in that narrative,” she says.
The ”relationship evidence” police are now being trained to collect, while potentially contestable at trial (prosecutors and defence barristers will debate whether a jury ought be allowed to hear certain details), has a place in the courtroom.
”There have certainly been circumstances where it is relevant and it is admissible, so it is important that we get it,” Ms Hassan says.
But while the result of this new policing may ultimately see more sex offenders and rapists convicted and jailed, that is not the goal.
The goal, says Detective Sergeant Breen, is to get a good result.
”A ‘good result’ depends entirely on what perspective you look at it from. If you ask police what a good result is in these cases, a lot of time they will say it’s about getting sex offenders locked up,” he says.
”If you ask victims, they have a wide range of things they report about what would be a good result for them, but overwhelmingly victims say, ‘I want to be part of a system that treats me with respect, believes what I say and investigates it professionally.’
”That’s not to say that they’re not shattered if someone gets acquitted but it’s the process that we need to create that encourages people to come forward.”
– Nicole Brady