Faculty of Computing, Health and Science
School of Psychology and Social Science, Social Justice Research Centre
Women who have a cognitive impairment (CI) (including mental illness, dementia, intellectual disability and acquired brain injury) are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, yet very few assaults are reported to police. Once reported very few cases manage to find their way through the justice system. The discourse of stereotyping and its impact on access to justice for victim/survivors is central to this research project which examines the uptake and exit stages of reports of sexual assault by persons with a cognitive impairment to police in Victoria, Australia. Data collection involves qualitative interviews with focus groups; analysis of police records of reports of sexual assault by persons with a cognitive impairment across a finite period of time (2003-2004) and one in-depth case study of a victim of rape with a cognitive impairment who successfully accessed the legal system to a completed trial. The focus of this work-in-progress paper is on the analysis of the focus groups that have been held across Victoria including rural, regional and metropolitan locations with police, sexual assault counselors and advocates for sexual assault victims with a CI. Data has been analysed using a modified Grounded Theory framework and ‘interpretative repertoire’ analysis. These methods of analysis have been used to identify commonly held perceptions of sexual assault victims who have cognitive impairments. Early findings indicate that police and advocates alike, draw on commonly held stereotypes about victims with cognitive impairments. These include the level of traumatisation, whether their word can be believed above that of a carer and that ‘they cannot stand up to the rigors of the justice system’. Potentially these views have a significant effect on the depth and quality of service the victims receive from their advocate as well as the continued pathway of the report through the justice system.