Cases of sex assault are a problem in Penticton

'Women suffering in silence'

Penticton has a disturbingly high percentage of yearly sexual assault complaints deemed to be "unfounded" according to recent data, numbers that local women's shelter director Debbie Scarborough says are indicative of a problem with the system rather than false reports. 

Stats Canada data shows nearly 38 per cent of sexual assault complaints received in Penticton in 2018 were labeled unfounded. The province-wide average is just below 15 per cent. 

RCMP define that term as "when a criminal offence has been reported and a police investigation has determined that the offence has not occurred or been attempted, and the call cannot be reclassified to another offence classification," according to Staff-Sgt. Kirsten Marshall. 

Between 2017 and 2018, complaints deemed unfounded jumped from 7 to 11. 

"I simply can not speculate as to the patterns of what causes a sex assault file to be deemed unfounded, as the reasons can be varied, including mental illness," Marshall said in an email to Castanet. "What I did note is that more than one of these files was generated by the same individual."

Specifically, four of the unfounded reports were from the same person, Marshall confirmed. She could not provide other details. 

South Okanagan Women in Need Society executive director Debbie Scarborough says the stats don't add up.

"Would you or I report a sexual assault if it didn't happen? The grilling, the intimate details you have to share...really? Do you really think I'm going to make a false, unfounded report and share those details?" Scarborough said. "I just don't think that's realistic. We aren't going to put ourselves through it."  

She works with women in crisis every day through SOWINS, and can personally attest to the suffering. 

"We're hearing from women that sexual assault and date rape is happening probably every weekend," Scarborough said. "Never mind that intimate partner and domestic violence often includes sexual violence, and that means forced sexual intercourse and contact and that's part of the abuse that the women are enduring."

She cited national statistics that only one in 10 sexual assaults is even reported in the first place, let alone investigated or taken to court. 

"When you know that number is times 10, it is alarming, and knowing that a percentage of those are found unfounded. We always look at, why is that happening? What are the barriers to women not reporting?" Scarborough asked. 

She suggests that at least one RCMP team member on every watch be specially trained in sexual assault response. 

"I think that the numbers [of founded reports] would go up ... I think it would make a huge difference if we really focused on having more people report and reducing the barriers to women reporting."

Included in the Stats Canada data is the number of individuals charged for sexual assault level 1, which encompasses all sexual assaults not committed with a weapon.

Only six people were charged in Penticton in 2018, a number Scarborough finds shockingly low.

"There are women suffering in silence. We need to do a better job of making it safe for them to tell their story, and do a better job of convincing the Crown to go forward with the charge," she said. "Convincing women that we're going to believe them and listen to them."

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