By Megan Kissane
The Bridge is the Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) for Avon and Somerset, and they have just signed the Bristol Zero Tolerance pledge. We talk to Centre Manager Debbie Burunou, and Louise Davey, the Performance and Development Manager and Crisis Worker, about why they have signed up.
‘All the staff have been so friendly and welcoming, and very kind. I was supported from the very first contact, and overall, could not have gone through the past few years without this wonderful service. A major asset to our NHS service, and one that I hope is able to reach as many individuals as need it.’ – Service user
Located in the Central Health Clinic near Castle Park in Bristol, the Bridge serves all of Avon and Somerset and is the only service that provides a forensic medical examination by a trained examiner. The services provided include crisis support, telephone consultations, signposting and onwards referrals to other agencies, medical examinations and counselling. The Bridge also supports individuals throughout the police process that can arise should service users choose to report their assault. Anyone who reports a rape or sexual assault to the police will be referred to The Bridge for support. However, people can also self-refer and the services available to them include forensic medical examinations::
“We will keep the samples and store them for that person, so that if in the future they decide they want to speak to the police, the evidence hasn’t been lost. And that’s quite topical at the moment when you think about the public enquiry, if that happened now and if the Bridge had been open we would have those samples stored”.
Working with Debbie and Louise are a whole range of professionals at The Bridge, including a clinical director who is a GP, crisis workers, nurses, counsellors and an administrator. Out of hours, a group of crisis workers take up the phone line from 5pm till 9am every night, which means that advice can be offered to clients or professionals at any time of day or night. Also, a doctor or nurse can be summoned at any time if a forensic examination is needed or medical advice is required when someone needs help. The Bridge is in fact “one of the only SARCs in the country to have nurses who are specifically trained to do this work”, explains Debbie.
‘It doesn’t matter if you were drinking, it doesn’t matter if you were wearing a short skirt, it doesn’t matter if you kissed somebody. If you say no, then no is no, that’s it.’ – Debbie
From April 2014 to March 2015, the Bridge provided support to 935 individuals , spanning all of their services, from telephone support to counselling. Although there are many great organisations that provide specialist help in the long run, The Bridge is uniquely placed to provide holistic support when an individual has been assaulted in the last 7 days. Interestingly, The Bridge has experienced an increase in male service users from around 2% to around 11% in the last five years, according to Debbie. She explains that she believes “men are getting more confident in the services we are able to offer them”, but that “a lot of those will be counselling, they won’t be forensic medicals or wanting to go to court”. The service is predominantly female, however in their experience, male service users actually tend to prefer dealing with female professionals, but individuals can of course request to see a forensic examiner of whichever gender they feel most comfortable with:
“When somebody contacts us we tell them who the nurse or doctor is who is available at the moment. If they don’t want someone of a particular gender then we do everything we can to get someone of the gender they do want”.
For a bigger picture we asked Debbie and Louise what a Zero Tolerance city means to them. For Debbie it means “exactly what it says, which is that sexual violence of any type, from a stranger jumping out from a bush to someone touching you inappropriately or looking at pictures of you or whatever, it’s just not acceptable.” The Bridge receives calls from individuals who are unsure about whether what they have experienced is rape or not, and “it’s about saying ‘no, that is rape, and it’s not acceptable’”, and then being able to help whether they want to go to the Police or not. Debbie clears up certain misconceptions around sexual assault:
“It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, it doesn’t matter if you were flirting, it doesn’t matter if you were drinking, it doesn’t matter if you were wearing a short skirt, it doesn’t matter if you kissed somebody. If you say no, then no is no, that’s it. It’s not acceptable”.
This steadfast clarity is a crucial component of the Zero Tolerance pledge, which is one of the reasons Debbie says she was keen to get signed up: “This is the work that we do day in and day out 24 hours a day… and it’s saying exactly what we think, which is zero tolerance.”
‘We’re all aiming for the same thing, which is that I could walk out at night in my bikini having had 6 vodkas and tonics and get home safely.’ – Debbie
One of the aims of the Zero Tolerance initiative is to provide organisations in Bristol with an umbrella under which we can find common ground to work together. This is an important aspect of the work The Bridge does as it links with many other agencies for onward referrals to best support the individual. “If you’re not working together then some people get bugged because they have different agencies phoning them or some people slip through the gaps, which is why the police use us as the gatekeepers, everything goes through us”, says Debbie. Needless to say the 24/7 helpline at The Bridge particularly contributes towards nothing getting missed. Working in partnership also means being able to share and utilise resources, “whether that’s people, whether that’s money, whether that’s knowledge, if we’re all working together to bring together all of those skills then we’ll get to a place where everyone knows it’s not acceptable”. Louise highlights the fact that their work often leads them to people who are already in the know around gender-based violence and abuse, which is why being part of the Zero Tolerance initiative can offer them something different:
“It’s approaching a wider range of organisations and I think that public space and capacity – commercial organisations for example – can transform attitudes that can reach the average person. We’re all trying very hard to reach as many people as possible but sometimes we’re in danger of speaking to the people who already know. So to reach outside of that is something that the Zero Tolerance initiative can really offer.”
This desire to reach further is quickly supported by Debbie, saying “if we reach one person who would otherwise not have help, then that’s it”. It is in support of this ‘common goal’ and this vision for the city of Bristol that The Bridge have signed the Zero Tolerance pledge.
‘The Bridge has completely changed my life and my outlook on life. I’ve come to appreciate my life I have now even after everything that has happened. I feel like a completely different person, and other people have noticed the positive changes too. I would definitely recommended The Bridge to other people, I feel like The Bridge is the silver lining to the thunderstorm.’ – Service user
For more information on The Bridge call 0117 342 6999 or visit their website.