Woman says she was made to feel 'like a liar' over closed Halifax sexual assault case
Deborah Hogan wanted her voice heard in a courtroom, but police say not all cases move up the judicial system, unfortunately.
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Deborah Hogan’s voice is tired and frustrated as she shares her story about a sexual assault she said happened when she visited Halifax last May.
The Ottawa woman wanted to know why her file was closed. Why she felt abandoned by Halifax Regional Police. Why some sexual assault victims’ stories are shared and others aren’t.
She also wants to warn other women about what happened to her so they can be wary.
“I’m tired of being made to feel like I’m a liar. The cops weren’t there that night when all of this took place,” Hogan said.
“They weren’t there. They weren’t in my shoes. They weren’t in that car.”
Hogan’s story is a complicated one. She was visiting Halifax last spring and was looking for companionship. She openly admits to putting up a Craigslist ad at the end of April seeking a sexual encounter.
Describing herself as someone who has impulse issues, she said she took it down in less than 24 hours and replaced it with an ad looking for friends.
On May 7, a man contacted her about her ad. Hogan agreed to meet him the next day at her friend’s Dartmouth home. She said she repeatedly told him she had no interest in sex.
Despite this, Hogan said the man grabbed her when her friend left the room and “rammed his tongue down her throat,” a move she resisted.
The evening ended with Hogan as a passenger in the man’s car after he agreed to bring her back to her downtown Halifax hotel.
As they crossed the MacKay Bridge, Hogan said he reached between her legs and began groping her crotch. She cursed at him and although he eventually backed off, she said he became angry and verbally abusive, even threatening her life.
“I was really upset and my heart started to beat faster because I didn’t know what was going to happen or what was going through this guy’s mind,” she said.
“I thought to myself ‘I’m going to become another statistic.’”
At the corner of Cogswell and Barrington streets, Hogan was able to get out of the car and called 911. She said what followed was months of “hell.” When her file was closed in July, 2015, Hogan said police told her it was due to a lack of physical evidence.
“They didn’t give me any closure to the case,” she said.
“I felt that my self respect, my dignity, I feel that everything was just taken away from me. I feel so disgusting. I feel so dirty.”
Criminal justice system doesn’t change easily
Dr. Verona Singer teaches at Saint Mary’s University and is the coordinator of victim services with Halifax Regional Police.
When victims of sexual assault or sexualized violence call the victim services department, Singer said it’s not uncommon for the call to be anonymous as victims make an initial inquiry to ask what will happen if they decide to file a report.
“What we try to do with victims is to be as up front and as open and as transparent as possible about all the roadblocks that they’re going to encounter in the criminal justice system,” Singer said.
“And sometimes the decision that they make is, ‘Oh my god. I don’t want to report this at all.’”
Singer said one difficulty encountered by victims is service providers within the criminal justice system who ask questions that make victims feel they’re not being believed. In response, Singer said they’ve established a ‘trauma informed response training program’ for Halifax Regional Police patrol officers and RCMP officers.
That training started in 2014 and covers the concept of victim blaming, how to frame questions and how to help victims feel more supported. The program also instructs police about using language in their reports that accurately reflects any resistance the victim displayed during the sexual assault and explains the impacts of trauma.
Singer said while some victims do find the criminal justice system helpful, there are many who don’t because the system was never designed to be victim-centered.
“Certainly with the new (Canadian) Victims Bill of Rights I think there could be potential for improvement for the victims of sexual assault but I think they will always be dissatisfied,” she said.
“It is a monolithic system that does not move easily, that does not change easily and I think that there will always be issues and concerns with it where victims of sexual assault will not feel that they have been heard, and I’m talking from police right through to final disposition when the jury says guilty or not guilty.”
Getting it to the court and proving it before the court is a completely different threshold
Although she couldn’t provide details about Hogan’s case or confirm her name, Halifax Regional Police spokeswoman Theresa Rath did outline some of the difficulties police face with sexual assault cases.
She said each case is unique. Sometimes victims decide they don’t want to proceed, while other times police simply have very little evidence to work with.
“For us to able to lay charges and take it to court, we have to be able to liaise with the Crown attorney to find out if there’s a reasonable likelihood of conviction and whether or not we have evidence that we can present,” Rath said.
“In some cases we may investigate it, we may have a full sense of who’s responsible, but getting it to the court and proving it before the court is a completely different threshold.”
In cases of sexual assault, Rath said police must also take into account that victims must relive their trauma.
“It does take courage to come forward and it is an arduous process and you do have to tell your story,” she said. “You have to consider the victimology around that and what that does to a victim.”
What happened to no means no?
Hogan said she still struggles to cope with feelings of helplessness, frustration and fear.
She said she’s worried the man who assaulted her may be preying on other vulnerable women in Halifax.
“I don’t understand how this guy can get away with what he did to me…How many other girls out there did he do it to? I didn’t deserve to be attacked,” Hogan said.
“Even if there was a Craigslist ad, even if I did put that up, what ever happened to ‘no means no?’ I was very clear that I didn’t want anything to do with him sexually at all and nothing should matter except that.”
Victim-centered restorative approach to sexual assault needed: expert
Dr, Verona Singer believes a victim-centred restorative approach running parallel to the criminal justice system could be “incredibly empowering” for victims of sexual assault.
“It would be the offender saying I take responsibility for what I’ve done, I am prepared to be accountable, how can I repair the harm to the victim and to the community,” Singer explained.
“We need that in this province. And we need to begin the dialogue and the discussion around that.”
Singer also believes teaching young men about the meaning of enthusiastic consent and encouraging young women not to be passive are critical pieces.
“We have a lot of work to do and it starts with our kids, and it’s beyond good touch bad touch kind of stuff,” she said.
“It really is about communication and about saying it’s ok, you aren’t a bad person when you say ‘No don’t touch me.’ It is all that nuanced stuff that we don’t get into. “