There are few more tragic human interactions than a sexual assault. The physical and mental issues are both challenging and dangerous. Unfortunately, the response during the initial period of grief and shock often leads to circumstances that complicate matters even more. The purpose of today’s blog is only to provide you with information and tips to ensure that those initial actions don’t compromise a victim’s chance to get physically better and appropriately evaluated in a way that allows evidence to be collected. To that end, I welcome to Straight, No Chaser as a guest collaborator Dorothy Kozakowski, Vice-President of the Illinois Chapter of the International Association of Forensic Nurses, a specialist in substance abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence detection. She also heads Forensic Sane Services, providing care in Chicago and throughout Illinois (www.forensicsaneservices.com).
Sexual assault survivors are most often in shock immediately after the event and tend not to consider themselves as victims of a crime. Feelings of guilt, shame and physical injuries may cloud one’s judgement and lead to inappropriate actions. There are often additional factors in play. The victim may still be in danger or captive. The victim may have lost consciousness or may be under the influence of various illicit substances.
Assuming that the victim is able to overcome these obstacles, and the anxiety and fear associated with publicly alleging an assault has occurred, there still are multiple challenges to overcome (It is important to point out the power of the phrase ‘alleged assault’. If the act isn’t proven, the consequences of an unproven accusation often lead to even more problems for the victim, and the fear of such may be so powerful that it inhibits the victim from reporting the event.).
For the purpose of this post, we simply want to advise you on initial steps to take to both protect yourself and secure the chain of evidence, thus giving any future prosecution the best possible chance to catch the perpetrator.
- Remove yourself from the situation ASAP. Sexual assault is an act of violence, and you should consider yourself to be in danger.
- Go immediately to the emergency room, local rape crisis center, or other designated facility suitable for an evidentiary examination to collect physical evidence. If not immediately, certainly within 72 hours.
- Go as you are. Do not engage in activities that may destroy important evidence that can be used to identify the perpetrator, such as urinating, defecating, vomiting, douching, removing/inserting a tampon, wiping/cleaning genital area, bathing, showering, gargling, brushing teeth, smoking, eating, drinking, chewing gum, changing clothes, or taking medications.
Post-script: The authors have been involved in sexual assault work for years. Sterling Initiatives is proud to have implemented the first Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program in the state of Connecticut and to have made similar initial pioneering efforts at major trauma centers in Texas and Wisconsin.
The trauma of sexual assault is only made worse by perpetrators getting away with the act, which unfortunately occurs in 15 of 16 cases, largely because reporting doesn’t occur and/or evidence is destroyed. Please consider the information provided should you or a loved one ever find yourself in harm’s way in this manner. We welcome any questions or comments you may have.
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