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“The subject is no longer discussed in hushed tones,” says former police officer and counsellor Bob Stevens. Photo: ELLEN BROOK

FLASHBACK: The most difficult files

In the 1980s, New Plymouth police and social workers set the benchmarks for dealing with sexual abuse cases.

These days, dedicated sexual assault police officers and teams are the norm in all police districts, but that wasn’t the case in the early 1980s when Bob Stevens was a detective in New Plymouth.

As a police officer in the 60s and 70s, Bob “locked up a lot of people”. Murder and sexual assault were his stock-in-trade.

By 1980, he had a well-rounded career behind him, including stints with AOS and search and rescue. He also discovered he was a good listener and interviewer, especially when it came to dealing with victims of sexual assault.

At the time, he says, police officers did attend training courses on sexual crimes, but it was mostly adult sexual offending, particularly rape. There was no training for dealing with young children or specialist instruction on putting together court files for such cases.

And, as awareness of child sexual assaults increased, with women starting to speak out about what happened in families and behind closed doors, the number of complaints being made to New Plymouth police was growing.

Working on such cases wasn’t a popular task and most of the files in Taranaki were ending up on Bob’s desk.

“It is as difficult as it gets for staff to deal with the trauma of parents and the grief and pain that innocent children have to endure,” he says.

“Nobody else wanted to do it. There was no real formula for it then, except knowing how to do an inquiry and be a good interviewer.”

However, he says, he couldn’t have done the work without the knowledge and support of several social workers who at the time made it clear to Bob that police and the Department of Social Welfare (DSW), as it was then, needed to be working together on these matters.

That led to the establishment of the first dedicated sexual assault team for adults and children in the country, made up of Bob and three women social workers, with several other detectives eventually joining the team.

In August 1986, Bob’s career was painfully interrupted. During a cycling training ride at Inglewood, south of New Plymouth, he was hit from behind by an elderly car driver, pushed more than 70 metres up the road and the left wheels of the car ran over his stomach and upper body. It was touch and go whether he would survive and he was in intensive care for three weeks followed by ongoing hospital care.

He did manage to return to work near the end of that year, promising the surgeons, not quite truthfully, that it would be light duties only. All his “sex files” – almost 40 of them – were still waiting for him. Staff had done their best, he says, but some still struggled to deal with little children who had been sexually abused.

Bob realised that police needed a better system for dealing with parents bringing their children into the police station with complaints of abuse. Many times, they were left to make reports at the public counter.

Bob managed to secure an office, but says it was still “totally inadequate, and still terrifying for parents and their children”.

He started meeting victims offsite until a new building was set up behind the police station specifically for officers working on sexual abuse cases.

“During this time, the way of dealing with these complaints progressed considerably. As detectives, we knew we had to work as a team, and it became an edict that reports of sexual assault on children to either Social Welfare or police had to be immediately cross-indexed between them.”

They also completed the first televised recordings, monitored by two staff, of child sexual disclosure interviews.

Police and social workers worked honestly and openly, sharing their knowledge and thoughts, Bob says. They became known by the new name of SAT, the Sexual Assault Team.

In 1987, Bob joined forces with three social workers and a well-known paediatrician, the late Dr Robin Fancourt, to collaborate on writing the country’s first manual for investigating and managing child sexual abuse. It was published by the DSW and distributed to police stations and DSW offices, setting a benchmark that is still used today for dealing with such cases.

“There was huge collegial support for it,” Bob says. Staff from other Police districts came to see the work being done in New Plymouth, and Bob travelled the country to lecture on the subject, including at the Police College and to social workers and community groups.

“It was really the women who deserve the credit for starting things off in the area of the response to sexual abuse,” says Bob, and he remains proud that because of a small team of people in New Plymouth, there are now dedicated sexual abuse investigations teams in all Police districts.

“The subject is no longer discussed in hushed tones and while it has forever been a part of human behaviour, there is no excuse, as adults know right from wrong.”

Detective Senior Sergeant Neil Holden, who has worked in child protection since the late 1980s, recalls attending one of Bob’s sessions at the Police College around 1989. “Once the model got under way, common sense prevailed and similar units popped up around the country as awareness of a better response to sexual abuse grew,” he says.

He also credits “world-leading” changes to the Crimes Act on sexual violation in 1987, which he says was another sign of the changing times. “It was new territory for some in Police as it clashed with the prevailing view of ‘real policing’ – that homicides were the pinnacle of investigative work and rapes were only perpetrated by strangers.”

Neil says Police is still on “the pathway” when it comes to understanding sexual assault and child protection, but it was thanks to people like Bob, “who not only grasped what was needed but took it further”, that Police was able to develop specialist child interviews and investigations.

In 1990, Bob was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for his work in the field.

In 1991, he was forced to leave Police, at the age of 49, on medical grounds stemming from the cycling accident.

While it was a severe blow at the time, the upside, says Bob, was that he went on to do a postgraduate course in counselling at Massey University and to work as a counsellor with SAFER, the New Plymouth Sexual Abuse Family Education Rehabilitation trust.

He worked with children, adolescents, women and men and says his years as an adviser and counsellor constituted the most productive work he has ever done.

He became an EAP (Employee Assistance Programme) counsellor, worked at the New Plymouth prison, started a government-funded programme for adolescent male sex offenders and worked with ACC.

In 2016, Bob received an award from SAFER acknowledging his three decades in the field of sexual violence.

“I am honoured to have been given the trust of so many women, men and children to help them sort out their multiple issues,” Bob says.

He had his own brush with trauma when he developed PTSI after leaving Police. “Funnily enough, I never had any problems dealing with the murder and mayhem when I was in Police, but it was after I left that the nightmares started. It was PTSI, and we didn’t talk about that back then, but what I learnt later helped me to resolve it.”

Now 78 and retired in New Plymouth, Bob says he has great admiration for the people who are prepared these days to come out and tell their stories about abuse.

“They show wonderful courage. Sex abuse is about power and control and we have to work to stop it to help as many people as we can.”

Bob was also an active member of the Police Association and was awarded a Certificate of Merit in 1991 in acknowledgment of services to the association. – ELLEN BROOK