Award for Empowering Sex Assault Victims

By Ron Fanfair, Toronto Police Service Published: 4 p.m. May 13, 2019

A project inspired by sexual violence survivors and rolled out by Toronto Police Service (TPS) members was recognized with the Teamwork Award at the Ontario Women in Law Enforcement (OWLE) 21st annual gala on May 3 in Mississauga.

An audience looking at a screen
The yourchoice.to website was launched by the police officers and community members who helped design the site at Toronto Police headquarters on March 27

In February 2017, the provincial government launched a program to support individuals who have experienced sexual assault.

A total of 15 pilot projects were selected that would provide a more compassionate and sensitive response when survivors come forward and report their experiences.

Members of the Sex Crimes Unit in collaboration with Corporate Communications received grand funding of $98,000 that was used to create ‘Project Guide’ led by D/Sgt. Anne-Marie Bishop and managed and executed by Det. Carol Ann Rock and D/Const. Deanna Gagliardi.

Meaghan Gray, then the Acting Director of Corporate Communications, provided community relations and communications direction while Supt. Pauline Gray and Business Intelligence & Analytics Manager Ian Williams assisted with the project.

The comprehensive and multi-faceted community outreach and education initiative took two years to complete.

Placing emphasis on the emotional and physical well-being of persons impacted by sexual violence was one of the project’s guiding principles. Adopting a survivor-centred approach shifted the focus away from the police and placed the survivor in the centre of a circle of support.

“At the beginning when we got the grant, we were just thinking about increasing reporting,” said Rock, who joined Bishop and Gagliardi in accepting the prestigious award from Peel Regional Police Interim Chief Chris McCord. “But as the project evolved, we realized that survivors needed to have a choice about what’s best for them. It was about getting them the support they needed.”

Recognizing the need to work with partners to develop tools and identify best practices that supported a compassionate and sensitive response from law enforcement, TPS partnered with Ryerson University and MCIS Language Solutions.

A group of people on a stage holding awards
Peel Regional Interim Chief Chris McCord presents the Teamwork Award to D/Sgt. Anne-Marie Bishop, Det. Carol-Ann Rock and D?Const. Deanna Gagliardi

In addition, the team consulted with subject matter experts in the areas of education, health, immigration and law. Workshops and consultations were held with community partners, governmental agencies, advocates, students and survivors in order to create a transparent, accountable and inclusive environment.

“The team also embraced the opportunity to collaborate with the University of Toronto, the Ministry of the Attorney General, BOOST and Victim Services Toronto (VST).

Bobbie McMurrich, the VST Associate Executive Director, predicted that the guide would break significant barriers for sexual assault survivors who suffer in silence and isolation because they are fearful to seek help from the police and social service agencies.

“The message is loud and clear and that is you are in control, you are not alone and we are here to help you on your terms,” she said. “It is a person-centred approach that will no doubt open the channels of communication for survivors needing support and guidance.”

In March 2018, ‘Project Guide’ was publicly launched at TPS headquarters.

“As police officers, we knew we could do more,” Gagliardi said. “We knew that telling survivors of sexual violence to call police wasn’t enough. We knew we had the responsibility to provide people impacted by sexual violence with as much information as possible so they could make choices that were right for them. It is with those goals in mind that the ‘Project Guide’ team embarked on the development of this innovative and survivor-oriented initiative.”

Chief Mark Saunders, who attended the launch, said sexual assault investigations are the most under-reported crimes in society.

“This is one aspect of trying to create the awareness and recognition pieces while helping with the survivor maintenance piece,” he remarked.

‘Project Guide’ has three components. They are an interactive website, an information guide available in 12 languages (on the site) and a creative visual campaign that encourages survivors to make the right choice at the right time.

The ‘yourchoice.to’ website features translated versions of the 26-page guide, a community resource map, video messages from legal and health experts, pages devoted to sexual assault investigations, the legal process and the sexual assault evidence kit and links to other community service providers.

Bishop said the website was developed with safety and accessibility as a priority.

A website homepage
Yourchoice.to homepage where survivors of sexual assault can find resources for support as well as information about the police and court process

“The ‘Choice Campaign’ is an empowering and provoking inclusive media strategy that promotes the survivor’s right to choose what next happens,” she said. “The campaign presents options, advocating that no one choice is the right choice.” 

Supt. Domenic Sinopoli, who submitted the nomination, said the products launched that day were immediately recognized by survivors, the community and other policing agencies as ground-breaking.

In less than a year, 149,000 people from around the world have visited the website and the guide has been downloaded nearly 570 times. Individuals have linked to other community partners about 865 times and by the end of 2018, TPS noted a 16 per cent increase in reported sexual violations.

“In the months that followed, the project has had a significant implication for change within the law enforcement community,” Sinopoli noted. “Numerous agencies within the province are now adopting the guide and/or website as their own and tailoring the resources to their respective communities.”

He added that the guide was purposefully aligned to the Service’s goals and it’s an excellent example of what it means to be a modern and transformative organization.

“The team focused on the complex needs of a diverse city and by embracing partnerships was able to connect and deliver services to those who needed the police the most,” Sinopoli said. “The Project Guide team deserves to be recognized for their dedication, hard work, success and commitment in delivering innovative and comprehensive resources that are sensitive to the needs of sexual assault survivors and the greater community.”

JP Bedard, a sexual assault survivor, welcomed the campaign.

“As a survivor of sexual violence, I know how difficult it is to not only manage the emotional upheaval in your life, but also navigate the myriad of choices in terms of resources and support,” said Bedard. “With the release of the new guide and media campaign, the Toronto Police Service has shown that they have listened to those whose lives have been impacted by sexual violence and the organizations and communities that support them.” 

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