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Bringing justice to unfounded cases of sexual assault

Organization: Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women

Project: Improving Institutional Accountability in Responses to Violence Against Women

Location: Ontario

Subject: Gender-based violence

Duration of funding: April 6, 2017 to April 5, 2019

Publication date : 2021-02-19

In 2016, one in five cases of sexual assaults in Canada was deemed unfounded by police services. “Unfounded” refers to an investigation that is concluded by police when they believe that no violation of the law has taken place or been attempted.

With funding from Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE), the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women (OCTEVAW) worked with partners to bring the Violence Against Women Advocate Case Review (VACR) model across Canada. This model adds a new link in the investigative chain in reviewing sexual assaults cases that were deemed to be unfounded or where no charges were laid to determine if gender bias, barriers or other investigative issues played a role in this outcome.

The VACR model is based on the US Philadelphia Model, a collaborative review process where violence against women advocates and experts from outside of law enforcement agencies are given secure access to police case files of sexual assaults to identify any missteps in the investigative process and any worrying trends. Violence Against Women (VAW) Advocates in Canada began working in 2011 to adapt this model to a Canadian context and create the VACR model.

Project in action

Over the course of the project, VAW advocates, under the leadership of OCTEVAW, established 19 review sites where community sexual assault centre advocates partnered with municipal law enforcement agencies to review all sexual assault allegations that did not lead to a charge or were deemed “unfounded”. Due to overwhelming demand, the project scope expanded from Ontario to Canada-wide.

The VACR model is now the leading third-party mechanism to review sexual assault cases that failed to result in charges in Canada, and has been adopted as a standard operating procedure in sexual assault investigations by 19 municipal services across the country to date. The continued use of this model can help lead to significant changes in how police handle sexual assault cases and can potentially increase the number of sexual assault cases that lead to a criminal charge and conviction.

As part of this project, project leaders contributed to the creation of the Canadian Framework for Collaborative Police Response on Sexual Assault,, a roadmap to implementing VACR. This guidance document has been endorsed by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner and the Federal Information and Privacy Commissioner. It contains tools and protocols to help increase collaboration between those investigating sexual assault cases while improving support for survivors of sexual violence, and helps with the adoption of VACR model into standard practice.

On the record

“WAGE Funding could not have come at a better time. We had just secured the funding when the Globe and Mail “Unfounded” series was published – and this meant that we actually had the person power to respond to the massive demand that resulted from the series. As a result we’ve been able to establish VACR as a recommended practice in sexual assault investigations across Canada, and every day we continue to hear from new services. This project has launched systemic changes that are taking a permanent place in sexual violence policing, and stretch far beyond the original project cycle.”

Sunny Marriner, Project Lead-VAW Advocate Case Review, Improving Institutional Accountability Project
Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women

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