April 3 is the 4th annual Start By Believing Day. In April 2011, Ending Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) launched “Start by Believing,” a global campaign designed to increase awareness of sexual assault and improve societal responses to victim disclosures. According to the SBB website, the campaign draws from psychology’s knowledge base about attitude formation and behavioral change, It is designed to narrowly target a single behavior among professionals and the public: responding to a disclosure of sexual assault with an initial orientation of belief, rather than doubt, blame, or shame. The inspiration for the campaign was based on showing that – unlike other crimes – disclosures of sexual assault victimization are generally seen as “false until proven true,” and victims are viewed with skepticism until they can prove they are “legitimate” victims and their experience counts as “real rape.” The campaign has now been adopted in hundreds of communities around the world, and hundreds of criminal justice agencies. Read more about SBB here.

Avalon Centre first introduced SBB to the Halifax Region in 2013. After the sexual assault and death by suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, survivors accessing programs and services at Avalon Centre identified the need for Avalon to initiate a public campaign that let survivors know they are believed and supported. Many people who access Avalon Centre indicate that the first time they hear “I believe you” is when they come to Avalon. Over the years we have collaborated with other service providers and community partners to implement Start By Believing concepts and approaches in improving response, support, and services to survivors of sexualized violence in the Halifax region. Avalon Centre has worked to enhance our trauma informed approach, our trauma specific therapeutic counselling methods, and our healing centred practises. We have also collaborated with community partners on trauma informed first responder training and best practises to build capacity so that all of us can more effectively respond to and support survivors.

While many service providers and community members have embraced and supported Start By Believing, there are many organizations and individuals who are still resistant to or who actively disclaim Start By Believing. Many detractors claim that if law enforcement or legal professionals “start by believing” then they cannot remain impartial, and that it is biased against people accused of sexual assault/abuse. However, the opposite is true. We know from the Globe and Mail’s Unfounded series that for years, many sexual assaults reported to police across Canada were not properly investigated and that victims were not believed or were treated unfairly by police. We now know that this lack of appropriate action by some police agencies has led to serial sexual offenders not being apprehended or effectively prosecuted, and has led to the violent sexual assaults, murders, or deaths of victims, as well as decades of systemic and institutional child sexual abuse. Similarly, in the United States, the Department of Justice published decades of research showing that confirmation bias affects the investigation and prosecution of sexualized violence. Meanwhile, a thorough investigation is the only way to achieve due process, and to properly include or exclude suspects. Allegations of other sorts of crimes are most often met with an assumption that the crime report has merit to be investigated. A report of break and entry would rarely be met with questions like “are you sure the belongings have not simply been borrowed?”

Campaigns like Start By Believing, along with training initiatives and resources implemented by organizations like EVAWI and Avalon Centre consistently support the concepts of fair and unbiased investigations and due process for victims and suspects. They promote greater trust between law enforcement and the public to ensure that sexual assault cases will be investigated thoroughly and handled correctly, like any criminal allegation. With #MeToo, we are seeing how the shift in public opinion and improved response by service providers is affecting survivors. Statistics Canada recently reported that there were more police-reported sexual assaults in 2017 than in any year since 1998. Sexual assault centres across Canada report high increases in requests for services that make if difficult for many of them, including Avalon, to keep up with demand. Although the Province of NS increased sexual assault initial response and support programs in Nova Scotia during their three year Provincial Sexualized Violence Strategy, that initiative has only highlighted the need for increased provincial funding to sustain and grow existing services like Avalon Centre who already provide specialized therapeutic counselling and SANE services, as well as the need for funding to implement these services province wide.

To prevent sexualized violence and improve access to justice and supports for all victims/survivors of sexualized violence and abuse, first we need to Start By Believing. Then we must work together to address societal and systemic barriers, improve and implement legislation and laws, and provide the appropriate services that meet survivors’ needs.

Join Avalon Centre on April 3 to Start By Believing. Take the pledge and post a selfie of yourself with it, including the hashtag #sbb

You can find out more about how Avalon Centre and our community partners Start By Believing on Avalon’s website: https://avaloncentre.ca/campaigns/start-by-believing/.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Check our SAAM page and social media for more information https://avaloncentre.ca/campaigns/sexual-assault-awareness-month/.

Jackie Stevens
Executive Director