Hidden Depths: A Detailed Study of Rape Crisis Data

Lead Research Organisation: London Metropolitan University
Department Name: Applied Social Science


Sexual violence can lead to a range of individual and social harms, including long-term impacts on physical and mental health and wellbeing. We currently know most about cases that enter the criminal justice system (CJS), but this is a small minority of recent and historic cases - all of whom may have support needs. This project involves access to a unique, and never before available for research, dataset held by Rape Crisis Centres (RCCs).

Systematic data collection and analysis can help identify who is most at risk of victimisation (and most likely to perpetrate), what their needs are, and which interventions best enable them to move on with their lives. These data can inform and improve support services. The government's violence against women (VAW) action plan and various European institutions have called for improved data collection, yet quantitative data analysis on all forms of VAW, particularly sexual violence, is under-developed in the UK and Europe.

Specialist support services hold a wealth of data on victim-survivors, including many who are hidden from official sources, as they have never reported to state agencies. Support services have historically been reluctant to share their data externally because of client confidentiality. However, new restructuring and commissioning processes mean these services must increasingly evidence their work, though not all have the resources or experience to know how to do this. The Rape Crisis (RC) sector has embraced these developments and is at the forefront of driving forward improvements in recording and monitoring their work. One such advance is their development of a Data Performance Management System (DPMS), which is now used in half of all RCCs nationally.

Facilitated by our non-academic partner, South Essex Incest and Rape Crisis Centre (SERICC), a number of RCCs using DPMS are willing to provide the applicants access to their datasets. They combine to make a total sample of approximately 10,000 victim-survivors who have contacted RCCs since 2008. Three RCCs also hold large historic datasets (around 10,000 cases) they are willing to share and these will be linked with the DPMS-based data. This dataset is unique and its availability now is due to a longstanding relationship between CWASU, SERICC and the national RC Network.

This project will combine three elements. Firstly, we will conduct in-depth analysis of this previously unavailable dataset, which includes victim-survivors seeking support about recent events and childhood sexual abuse. This will be extended to include data from further RCCs during the project. Secondly, we will build capacity in the RC sector to improve the quality of future data collection and maximise use of findings from data analysis. We will hold three workshops with a working group of RCC staff responsible for data management. These will inform the analysis and reflections on findings, whilst also exploring how RCCs can improve data collection processes and use their own data more effectively in service planning, awareness raising and policy work.

CWASU has a history of collaborating with support services, practitioners and policy makers, including compiling some of the most extensive existing quantitative datasets on sexual violence in previous projects. However, our existing datasets are all limited to cases known to statutory services, especially the CJS, which we know comprise a minority of sexual violence. The project would contribute to the ESRC priority: Influencing behaviour and informing interventions. The research will produce greater understanding of the profiles of victim-survivors, perpetrators and contexts in which sexual violence takes place. We will also explore intersections of age, disability, ethnicity and class with health status and revictimisation. The outputs, alongside traditional academic papers, will include a series of briefing papers, some internal for RCCs and others for wider publics.

Planned Impact

This project will increase knowledge and understanding of sexual violence, including the profile of victim-survivors and perpetrators, contexts in which such violence takes place and outcomes for users of Rape Crisis Centres (RCCs). The proposed research has wide policy and practice relevance, as well as being of likely interest to academics in a range of fields, local/national policy makers, professionals working in frontline services responding to sexual violence and the public themselves.

A key element of the project is to enhance the capacities and capabilities of RCCs, based in the third sector, in relation to data recording and analysis. Primary beneficiaries will thus be RCCs, with whom we will be working closely throughout the project in the form of our partner, South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre (SERICC), the data managers from eight RCCs who will participate in the working group, and the wider national Rape Crisis network. The data RCCs hold is not currently fully exploited, but the research findings from the project and the increased reporting functions we will develop in conjunction with the working group and the database contractor will greatly enhance their capacity to utilise their data more effectively in many areas of their work, such as improving service planning and provision, developing funding bids, education and awareness raising, advocacy and policy work, as well as making provision of information for local and national government consultations more readily accessible. Testing the tacit knowledge of RCCs will enable them to draw on an evidence base in their local, regional and national engagements with policy makers and funders. For example, it has long been their contention that more of the women they work with are involved with the health and child protection systems than criminal justice. This has huge implications for public policy, which has to date been focused on attrition in the legal process.

Local and national policy makers have asserted commitments to addressing violence against women and girls (VAWG), including sexual violence. Improving knowledge of who is affected by sexual violence and what works to address it, through data collection and research are key aims of government, is stated in the current government Action plan on VAWG, and, increasingly, at EU level, and many local areas have VAWG strategies. This project has potential to inform the policies and practices of these institutions by extending the available evidence base with its predominant focus on those who have reported to the police to those who are often hidden from existing data sources. By demonstrating the links between sexual violence and health/mental health and wellbeing, there is also potential to increase opportunities for these issues to be taken account of by Health and Wellbeing Boards, as funding for health and social care services transfers to them from local authorities. Providing information to support the boards to understand VAWG is also an action point in the government's VAWG action plan.

Ultimately, improved understanding of the profile and contexts of sexual violence, as well as the support needs of victim-survivors and what is effective in enabling them to move forward will benefit victim-survivors themselves and the wider public. Using data to better understand the needs of this population and target services and interventions accordingly will increase the effectiveness of public services and policy and enhance quality of life, health and wellbeing.

The Data Performance Management System developed by SERICC in conjunction with Visia Software Limited is now a commercial product, having been installed in 21 RCCs, with plans its use to extend to the wider network in 2014, and in several domestic violence organisations. This project would further promote knowledge of this software, heightening the potential for its installation in additional settings.
Description Achievement of a large dataset on sexual violence
The primary achievement is the largest dataset on sexual violence cases in the UK, which includes in excess of 33,000 unique individuals using Rape Crisis (RCC) services. The original six RCCs included in the dataset expanded to 18 during the project, vastly increasing the size of the dataset from that projected in the original application. It covers half the current Rape Crisis England and Wales (RCEW) network. Although there are certain limitations to the dataset, apart from a small number of supporters/professionals, all individuals contained within it have had direct experience of sexual violence, and most are not represented in other official datasets, as the majority have experienced sexual violence many years previously, often in childhood, and have never reported their experience to the police.

Development of a network of data champions within RCEW
Through the project we have enabled a network of data managers in Rape Crisis Centres, who formed our project Working Group. This group continue to offer feedback on project outputs and work with each other to improve the collection and use of data within their own centres and the national Rape Crisis network as a whole.

Increased data collection/monitoring capability
The Hidden Depths project has increased capacity for internal data collection and monitoring within RCEW. In the project workshops we provided detailed feedback on missing data and definitional issues in the shared database used by the majority of centres participating in the project, Data Performance Management System (DPMS). We produced two internal briefings outlining guidance and recommendations for standardising data recording. Also as a result of the project, RCEW have developed a shared statistics portal, which they have piloted and are now using. The portal enables quarterly submission of standardised data on eight key fields from all RCEW member centres to a central data coordinator. The eight fields and categorisations within them were agreed through discussions at the project workshops.
Exploitation Route Findings have been shared among the RCEW members, through our internal briefings, presentations and workshops at RCEW national conferences, as well as to practitioners, funders and policy makers working in the field of sexual violence through our final project launch event. Cooperation continues, led by members of the project Working Group to improve data gathering and reporting. A briefing for funders and commissioners is in preparation to enable greater understanding of the contribution of Rape Crisis work. Wider dissemination among parliamentarians and government policy makers will take place through a short briefing of key findings targeted at national and local government.

Academic publication in journals and participation in conferences are underway. Two papers are in preparation: one exploring concept of 'incidentalism' in relation to the experience of survivors attending Rape Crisis Centres, and another on the contribution of the Hidden Depths dataset, alongside the Crime Survey England and Wales and the Adult Psychiatric Morbidity Survey, to knowledge on sexual violence in the UK. Other researchers will be able to take forward the research findings through access to the dataset deposited in the UK Data Archive.
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Healthcare,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other

Description The findings from this project are being used across the Rape Crisis sector to extend and improve data gathering, monitoring and reporting processes used by Rape Crisis England and Wales (RCEW), the national network of Rape Crisis Centres. The data analysis is also being used by centres in their lobbying work and in fundraising. The process of interrogating data collated in RCEW's Data Performance Management System (DPMS) and discussions held at the project workshops informed the development of a shared data portal. The portal enables quarterly data on a set of core fields, agreed as part of Hidden Depths, to be submitted by all member centres in a standardised format. This means that centres can view and use the most up to date statistical data on a local, regional and national basis: this is being used to inform service planning and development, reporting to funders, lobbying and communications work. Internal briefings and the presentation of findings at RCEW and other conferences have served to clarify understanding and operationalization within RCEW of key coding categories used in data monitoring, but also to underscore the utility of data collection for the network as a whole. Technical modifications to aid efficiency and promote consistency across and completion of key fields have also been made as a result of the project workshop discussions. Hidden Depths findings are used regularly by members of RCEW in presentations to funders and commissioners, including with Police, Fire and Crime Commissioners, Clinical Commissioning Groups and the London Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime. It has been of particular value to be able to highlight the length of time before survivors of sexual violence seek support, as this demonstrates the need for longer-term services. The quality of data collection within the network as a whole is improving since the project, particularly in Essex where it has been key to managing a new partnership between three local Rape Crisis Centres. Rape Crisis staff who participated in the project workshops continue to act as data champions and have regular contact as a virtual group. They are currently contributing to an upgrade of the DPMS, which will be launched in April 2018. Findings have also been cited by policy makers, such as in the Ministry of Justice (2017) report on limiting the use of complainants' sexual history in sexual offence cases. The profiling of the DPMS and the data collected by Rape Crisis Centres in the Hidden Depths project has led to the lead partner, SERICC, sharing data and expertise on sexual violence survivors with various government departments, including the Prime Minister's Implementation Unit and the Ministry of Justice. Most recently, in 2020 SERICC shared evidence on victim withdrawals from the criminal justice system extracted from their DPMS system with analysts at the Ministry of Justice to inform the end-to-end rape review currently being led by Criminal Justice Board. The reasons for increasing levels of victim withdrawal are a priority area investigation for the review. Recommendations about the criminal justice section of the database were made in Hidden Depths workshops and internal briefings to the Rape Crisis network. SERICC have since acted to address these and ensure greater completion of relevant fields, leading to a more robust dataset.
First Year Of Impact 2017
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy,Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal

Description Citation in Ministry of Justice and Attorney General's Office report on limiting the use of complainants' sexual history in sex cases
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Citation in other policy documents
URL https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/limiting-the-use-of-complainants-sexual-history-in-sexual...
Description Provision of data to inform end-to-end government rape review
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Gave evidence to a government review