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Parties find common ground on forensic sexual assault services

The ACT Legislative Assembly has once more united on sexual assault. Following last week’s tripartisan support for a working group, there was unanimous support the next day for Liberal deputy leader Giulia Jones’s motion to ensure the public knew what to do and who to call after sexual assault, and that a forensic sampling service and support workers were available all the time.

Health Minister Rachel Stephen-Smith (Labor) and Greens Health spokesman Johnathan Davis amended the motion, following “good-natured”, “constructive” discussions.

“We are a good Chamber, and though we have different recipes, there is a lot of desire here to see improvements for the people of the ACT,” Mrs Jones said. “Sometimes we can, and we should, and we will work together.”

Women are 86.6% of sexual assault victims in the ACT, Mrs Jones noted, but nine in 10 victims do not inform the police. Of those who do, fewer than a third of complaints lead to legal action. Although the number of complaints made has increased, the number of trials has more than halved in the last five years (from 230 to 105). Forensic sampling (gathering DNA evidence) is necessary to make prosecution and trials more likely, she said.

“Justice for victims of sexual assault may not occur instantly, but without this evidence … convictions are very difficult. Victims, survivors go on suffering while their perpetrators walk away and go on often to assault further people and inflict additional harm.”

Canberra’s forensic sample collection service, Forensic and Medical Sexual Assault Care (FAMSAC), operates out of the Canberra Hospital, and also services Calvary Hospital.

Mrs Jones was concerned that because sexual assault victims had to give consent, people with alcohol in their system may have to wait hours, unable to eat, wash, or change their clothes – which can worsen trauma.

She believed a mobile FAMSAC service, attending victims in homes, workplaces, or other public places, would make the process smoother.

Ms Stephen-Smith said that hospital was the best place, as DNA samples could be contaminated outside hospital. “However, we will be happy to revisit that to ensure that we continue to have the best forensic support possible for people who are in a time of need.”

The Canberra Rape Crisis Centre – “the best option for immediate aftermath counselling” (Mrs Jones) – has a support person available from 7am to 11pm each day. Mrs Jones said she understood the service was once funded to be 24 hours a day; she would like two counsellors available all the time.

“The Canberra Rape Crisis service … cannot completely be available for those in this city if they cannot get to those who need them 24/7.”

Mrs Jones also called for a single point of contact phone number for sexual assault.

Ms Stephen-Smith noted that ACT Government websites listed different telephone numbers, and that FAMSAC had different business and after-hours numbers. The ACT Health Directorate is reviewing this matter.

Also concerned about low prosecution rates, Mr Davis proposed that resourcing for and developing specialist expertise within the police’s sexual assault and child abuse team should be adequate. “It is clear that the systems intended to bring justice to those who have experienced sexual assault require transformation.”

Labor politicians Tara Cheyne, Dr Marisa Paterson, and Yvette Berry also spoke in favour of Mrs Jones’s motion.

The Government will report back to the Assembly on the progress of these matters by the first sitting day in August.

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