Special units encourage more rape victims to seek help
Police forces in Wales say more rape victims are coming forward since a shake-up in dedicated units helping them.
In Gwent, there has been a 66% referrals rise since the units started combining police expertise with victim support.
Referral centres confirm more cases even if some victims choose not to prosecute.
One manager in Merthyr said they are a vital asset in fighting sex crime.
The number of sexual assault referral centres (Sarcs) in Wales and England has increased since the 2010 Stern Review announced more needed to be done to support those affected by sex crime.
The specialist centres combine police, forensic and counselling services on one site, aimed at better co-ordination between the services and less trauma for victims.
South Wales Police is the only force in Wales to work with three specialist sexual assault referral centres in Merthyr Tydfil, Cardiff and Swansea.
The units aim to ensure victims are fully supported with counselling from independent sexual violence advisors.
Jackie Stamp, assistant manager at the New Pathways therapeutic centre of excellence in Merthyr, said Sarcs were an "important asset" in the fight against sexual crime.
But, perhaps more importantly, she said they were accessing women who before may never have come forward but were now referring themselves.
She said: "They give people the option to come forward after a rape or serious sexual assault to get medical and/or psychological support, even if they do not wish the police to be involved.
"They also provide ongoing support and counselling to people who want to take a report of rape forward, right up to and beyond the court process.
"Sarcs help people who have been affected by rape and sexual abuse to regain their sense of self-worth and independence and allow them to rebuild lives that could otherwise be shattered."
This is a view shared by Gwent Police's Det Chief Insp Steve Mogg, who heads the force's Onyx unit for investigating rape and serious sexual abuse.
He believes the centres are proving vital in the fight against sex crime, encouraging self-referrals from traumatised victims and encouraging them to speak about their ordeal.
He told BBC Wales: "Thanks to the Sarcs, we have seen 66% more victims coming forward, which means even if they choose not to prosecute or even report a crime, they are still gaining access to vital support.
"These crimes have always been happening but now victims have more avenues and feel more confident in coming forward as they can do so anonymously and still get support.
"When you bear in mind most rapes are committed by people known to the victim, it makes them very complex to investigate and try to prove guilt.
"But getting those men and women the support they need is so important for their wellbeing, even if the case doesn't make it to court for whatever reason."
New Pathways was set up in 1993 to provide a helpline for victims of rape but has since branched out to offer a three-pronged service.
It offers immediate crisis intervention, such as allocating victims a crisis worker straight away, support through court procedures and long-term therapy.
They accept self-referrals as many victims are said to be reluctant to speak to the police. Victims can change their mind after the initial examination and can also approach the service long after the rape itself.
New Pathways is based in Merthyr Tydfil but has outreach posts in Cardiff, Newport, Swansea Central and Clydach Hospital, as well as projects running in both HMP Cardiff and Usk.
Sarah Kirtland of the 'Safe Island' Sarc based at Cardiff Royal Infirmary, which opened in 2008, said staff had seen a notable increase in self-referrals.
She said: "We are different from New Pathways in that we are based within a health service and operate more like the long-established sarcs in Manchester and London.
"We have a lot of police referrals, third-person referrals and are getting more and more self-referrals.
"We also give help, support and advice to children and young people in Cardiff, Gwent and the Vale of Glamorgan who are suspected or confirmed victims of sexual abuse."
Det Ch Insp Wayne Jones of North Wales Police's public protection unit points to the success of its new Amethyst Sarc in Colwyn Bay, which has a full-time health service manager and a team of specially trained police officers who work out of the centre and assist victims throughout the investigation.
He said that since the Stern Review, which said support and care for victims should be given as high a priority as prosecution and conviction of perpetrators, the force had implemented a comprehensive action plan to help in tackling the "uniquely difficult" crime and was already seeing the benefits.
He said: "Working with the Crown Prosecution Service, we have enhanced our early consultation process and charging guidance, providing a more consistent approach to investigations."
The North Wales Rape and Sexual Abuse Support Centre (Rasa) recently appointed an independent sexual violence advisor to support victims.
Det Supt Jane MacKay of the public protection department of South Wales Police also said a joined-up approach was key.
She said: "Utilising the Sarcs we work closely with our criminal justice partners and take a proactive approach at every phase of the policing process, from the initial report and investigation, to arrest, trial, and sentencing.
"We always strive to increase the confidence of rape victims so they feel empowered to come forward in the first instance, but also to help them go through the process and deliver evidence and statements in a way that causes least distress."
Dyfed-Powys Police said since 2007, victims of sex crime had been able to access medical care and support in a "less traumatic environment" after the launch of a "pioneering new sexual assault referral centre".
"The Sarc based in Carmarthen was the first of its kind in Wales that was able to cater for children as well as men and women," the force said.
"It was a unique partnership involving police, health and social care organisations and the voluntary sector from conception. It provides a one-stop support system for victims of rape and sexual assault.
"It offers an opportunity for 'self referrals', opening the door to enable people to have a medical examination whilst having the time and space to consider the options available to them.
"As well as self-referrals, victims are also able to access the Sarc via their GP, A&E, domestic violence groups or child abuse specialist.
"There is no requirement to report assaults to the police, but officers are made available at the centre if and when victims wish to report the offence."