1.What is an ISVA?
Independent Sexual Violence Advocates/Advisors (ISVAs) are trained to provide emotional and practical support to survivors of rape, sexual abuse and sexual assault who have reported to the police or are considering reporting to the police.
2. What was your journey like to become an ISVA?
HG: After graduating from University I worked in a Students’ Union providing support to students who were involved in clubs and societies, and during my almost three years working there we saw a huge increase in reports of sexual assault. When I saw that SARSVL were recruiting for an Office Coordinator in 2018 I applied as I was excited to be part of a feminist workplace that centred survivors. I was supported throughout my time in the Office Coordinator role to strengthen my skills and develop my knowledge about sexual violence, including attending the Rape Crisis England and Wales ISVA training. In summer 2020 I successfully applied to the role of the ISVA and moved to that new role.
JA: I studied law at Uni and then qualified as a solicitor. Upon qualification I joined the Crown Prosecution Service as a Crown Prosecutor. I worked on the whole range of criminal offences and I always felt that I wanted to have a more direct connection with the survivors, which led me to spending some time volunteering as a support worker with the STAR Project (Surviving Trauma After Rape) which has unfortunately has since folded. I joined SARSVL as an ISVA in May 2018 and completed the Rape Crisis England and Wales ISVA training programme in October 2018. In January 2020 I took over as Advocacy Service Lead.
3. What does your average working day look like?
Like everyone, our lives turned upside down in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic made it unsafe to work in our usual face-to-face and office-based environment. As of February 2021 we are still working remotely, delivering our services through online and telephone platforms.
Our working from home days begin as they used to – we will check our emails and phones for any messages from clients, external partners, or criminal justice agencies, and respond to any incoming or urgent queries. We tend to have around three sessions each per day, which involves us either calling the client or meeting them in our secure online meeting rooms. Each session can last up to an hour and we discuss the clients’ cases with them and any further advocacy support they need. More often than not actions arise from these meetings that we complete that day or soon afterwards. Sometimes our days involve attending Leeds Crown Court either for a pre-trial visit with a client, or for a trial.
Alongside our client work we also have meetings with various agencies and organisations with whom we work in partnership. An example of this is our quarterly ISVA Forum, where ISVAs from across West Yorkshire meet to discuss our services, any ongoing challenges, and any projects or plans moving forwards.
4. What’s your favourite aspect of your role?
For both of us, we enjoy the most working with survivors to empower them to make decisions about their own lives. As the process from report to court can take a long time – sometimes years – we often end up working with individuals for long periods of time, getting to know them and their strengths and bravery. All our clients have their own story, and to be able to hear their stories and work alongside and support them is a great honour.
5.What’s the hardest/most challenging thing about your role?
The role of the ISVA faces many challenges, but one of the most challenging aspects is supporting clients where Police or CPS have made decisions to take no further action against the perpetrator. Often the criminal justice system can leave our clients feeling disempowered and disbelieved which goes against our core values and how we believe survivors should be treated. It can be difficult to see our clients go through these feelings, but it motivates us to keep going and fighting for the rights of survivors.
6. What changes has the ISVA service made as a result of COVID-19?
COVID has brought an immense amount of change for everyone, and our Advocacy service is no exception. Back in March 2020 we still held a lot of our files in a paper form, but now all of our records and files are kept electronically. We used to only offer sessions face-to-face in our Leeds office, but we have adapted to now deliver sessions over the phone or using online video platforms. This has worked really well and our clients have appreciated our flexible approach which will continue when we return to the office. We have learned how to maintain and improve our communication with each other as well as other staff members and external partners even though we can’t interact with each other in-person.
7. Why is the ISVA service so important for women in Leeds?
Making a report of sexual violence to the police can be a daunting process, as there is a lot of unknowns around the criminal justice system, and a lot of fear about what happens next. Our role is about empowering women to make informed decisions about their lives and helping them to know and exercise their rights within the reporting process. Women who have access to ISVA support are more likely to remain engaged in the criminal justice process.
8. If there’s one thing you could change about your role, what would it be?
Funding is always a challenge for all third-sector organisations, but securing long-term funding for our service so that we could develop our role and recruit more ISVAs to the team would be amazing.
9. How would you like to see the ISVA role developed?
There is often confusion and uncertainty from not only clients but professionals and partners about who we are and what we do. It would be great to see more people learn about our role and how we support survivors so that we can reach even more women and have an impact in our city.