THE spotlight is shining on the topic for national child protection week, but the detectives at the Ballarat Sexual Offences and Child Investigation Team (SOCIT) investigate the confronting crimes when they come across their desk on a daily basis.
Detective senior sergeant Darren Tanis took charge of the Ballarat SOCIT team in January.
Previously working at the Geelong and Melbourne's western suburbs crime and SOCIT units, he returned to Ballarat to work as the officer in charge of the Ballarat Divisional Response Unit for 14 years before returning to work with victims of sexual offences.
With 34 years of policing experience under his belt, mostly in investigations, working with and helping victims is his top priority.
What does the SOCIT unit do?
The 20 trained detectives and intelligence operatives who work in the Ballarat SOCIT unit investigate sexual assaults, child abuse and cyber crimes like child pornography.
The Ballarat unit is one of 28 SOCIT units around the state which investigate complex crimes involving sexual assault and child abuse, often in a joint investigation with other agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services, Ballarat Centre Against Sexual Assault (CASA), Child and Family Services (Cafs), Ballarat Health Services and Berry Street.
"Our role is investigating crime, apprehending offenders and working with partner agencies to ensure a professional, empathetic and comprehensive response for victims," detective senior sergeant Tanis said.
The detectives, who receive more than a dozen notifications a week for investigation, have undertaken specialist training in order to sensitively interview victims, people with intellectual and mental disabilities and to question offenders.
"What we're really about is building trust and rapport with victims and building confidence in reporting crime. It's all about the people."
The SOCIT unit is also tasked with managing the compliance of all of the sex offenders who live in the region to ensure they are abiding by the conditions and reporting requirements laid down by the court to ensure they are not placing the community at risk.
Police are involved with the large number of offenders from when they are first released from prison with regular interviews, including unscheduled visits, and recording their notifications of a change of address, when they come into contact with children and if they are going interstate.
The victims of sexual assault the Ballarat unit works with are predominantly females aged between 10 and 17, while offenders are predominantly male.
The highest percentage of cases, at 50 per cent, are what is known as historical cases, meaning a case in which the assault occurred more than two years prior to it being reported.
"Simply because the victims don't report it immediately has nothing to do with whether or not they are telling the truth, it's that the impact of the crimes on the victim does not enable them to report it at that time," he said.
Other cases include generational victims, victims of cyber crime - which police now have more resources than ever to tackle from acquiring access to data bases, phone and messaging services and the dark web - to the more difficult area of at-risk teenagers, who are placing themselves at risk of sexual exploitation, but many whom do not wish to report.
Many offenders have also been victims of sexual assault themselves.
While statistics show an increase in sexual assaults, experts widely attribute the spike to an increase in reporting.
Related coverage: Child-on-child abuse prevalent with much of the behaviour learnt online
Detective senior sergeant Tanis said there was an increasing trust in the police response and legal process after the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Sexual Abuse handed down its findings.
Investigations into sexual offences are complex, intensive and conducted over extensive periods of time.
Detectives support the victims and witnesses through the initial interview process, the apprehension of offenders, through the court process right through to ensuring they are supported at the other end.
Detectives are continuing to work towards reducing the impact reporting sex crimes can have on a victim, which can often re-traumatise, by implementing practices like recording video and audio of statements or allowing victims to give evidence from a remote witness facility so they are not forced to come face-to-face with the accused in court.
"It takes enormous courage for victims to come forward. It's about trying to minimise additional trauma for our victims as much as possible," he said.
"A core component for us is the support of those victims that have the courage to come forward by ensuring there is ongoing support. The support doesn't end the moment we walk out the door - we refer back to other agencies like CASA."
He said it was also incredibly courageous of witnesses, who come forward to report abuse committed by members of their own families, including incest, as it could break families apart.
The impact on police
Investigating the abhorrent and confronting crimes against society's most vulnerable - children as young as one, teenagers, people with intellectual and mental impairment and the elderly - can be extremely challenging for detectives given the distressing nature of what they are exposed to.
Detective senior sergeant Tanis said investigating child pornography was especially challenging as detectives needed to view the content in order to catalogue it.
The content of our work is fairly graphic and stark at times and certainly has the propensity to impact on our investigators. But it's about teamwork and supporting everyone in the team.Darren Tanis
Victoria Police provides extensive support to SOCIT and family violence investigators to ensure they are coping with the nature of the work.
Despite the difficulty, working in the unit is the most rewarding area of policing detective senior sergeant Tanis has worked in during his more than 30 years in the force.
"Our reward is providing service for the victims - when they are at their most vulnerable - and the community."
The impact of conversation
Police work regularly with the education department in relation to mandatory reporting of abuse, with teachers and educators now required to report abuse or harm inflicted on students to police or the DHHS when they become aware of it.
With a high proportion of cases involving child-on-child abuse, detective senior sergeant Tanis encouraged parents and families to take a strong interest in what children and young people were viewing and following on social media and the wider internet and to look for the signs of isolation and depression.
"Have open and frank conversations with children and family members. Communication is the key."
If this story has affected you, contact 1800 RESPECT (737 732) or the Ballarat Centre Against Sexual Assault on 5320 3933.
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