Empowering sexual abuse victims
Sexual assault can have a devastating impact on the lives of victims.
But a group of forensic nurses dedicated to re-empowering survivors are reminding the public that help is available.
Gaynell Hayward-Caesar, co-ordinator of the island's Sexual Assault Response Team, spoke about the importance of reporting the crime as the island marks Forensic Nurses Week.
The chief nursing officer with the Department of Health said: “We want to reach out to a victim and say, ‘you don't have to be a victim, you can be a survivor'.”
“Victim actually means that you remain in that position, trapped.
“But once you disclose, once you move from that victim phase to the next phase, then you have survived that and you are tracking towards the help that you need to get you even further than where you are.
“And being a survivor you are then able to deal with it. You may never forget it but you are able to deal with it better than if you just don't deal with it at all.”
She added that even if people did not report the crime, disclosing to a trusted person is still “very important”.
“If you don't have that person, that's where Centre Against Abuse comes in and, you can always make that phone call.
“They have the expertise in providing counselling and support for males and females.”
Ms Hayward-Caesar said 121 sexual assault examinations were carried out by forensic nurses between 2009 and 2016.
But she added: “Those are only reported cases. Statisticians usually say you can double that figure right off the bat.”
Ms Hayward-Caesar said that even though “sexual assault is so prevalent”, there is so much taboo around the subject that people often do not want to report their assault.
She added they may also be in shock or fear that reporting would make them more vulnerable to speculation, while others may feel like it will go away eventually.
She said: “That can actually result in post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicide, cutting or other psychological conditions and it actually minimises their quality of life.”
Ms Hayward-Caesar said more than 90 per cent of sexual assaults are perpetrated by known assailants. Most cases are reported by women and many involve adolescents.
“We would really like to see more males come forward and report,” she added. “It is happening and there is help for them.
“It just will not go away. It has some devastating, self-destructive effects if it's not addressed. It's so important to be able to have that conversation.”
Ms Hayward-Caesar said people can help by “being a listening ear, being supportive and not being judgemental”.
“It's a matter of listening to them and the thing that you want to get across is that it is not their fault.”
Sart, founded in 1998 after the brutal rape of the mother of a nurse, has a team of six forensic nurses. They have special training to collect evidence, protect it and give testimony during court cases.
When a sexual assault is reported to police, a Sart nurse heads to the hospital to conduct an examination (see below left), which can be done up to five days after the incident.
Ms Hayward-Caesar said this examination is important because it can lead to prosecution, but it can also help detect injuries and identify risk for sexually transmitted infection or pregnancy.
She added: “It's also a means of reassuring, putting the victim at ease and ensuring that we have the conversation about follow-up.”
She emphasised that patients always have a choice and that if they change their mind, feel uncomfortable or are in pain, they can stop the examination.
“That's their choice and we will stop. As forensic nurses, we want to empower them, to let them know this is not their fault, we're here to support them and we are also able to get further assistance for them.
“We really want to get the message out that there is a dedicated team able and ready to be of assistance to survivors of sexual assault.
“The bottom line is no one asks to be sexually assaulted. Some people think it will never happen to them but we are all vulnerable.
“What's really important is knowing what can you do if it does happen and then finding a safe place. Finding someone you can confide in is very important.”
• The Centre Against Abuse can be reached on 292-4366
When a sexual assault is reported, police contact Sart and a counsellor at the Centre Against Abuse.
A forensic nurse heads to the hospital and is introduced to the survivor by a police officer or hospital staff.
They explain the process of the examination to the patient and ask for consent to proceed.
If the survivor is under 18, they are under the remit of a parent or legal guardian. If they do not show up, Child and Family Services will help provide that oversight.
The forensic nurses ask for details of the assault, so they are able to figure out what they are looking for and where.
Sart co-ordinator Gaynell Hayward-Caesar said: “Whether they have been choked, punched, slapped, or bitten, all of those are clues and the body is actually the crime scene.”
The forensic nurses will collect and document evidence. They may also ask the patient to change so that clothing can be collected as evidence.
The survivor is then asked to sign a consent form, which is valid for 30 days and will enable a counsellor from the CAA to provide support. Information is only shared between nurses on an as-needed basis.
Ms Hayward-Caesar said: “We see the rights of the client as being really important and any information we share is with the client’s consent.
“The client knows with the consent form that they sign, that specimens and exhibits are given to the police for purposes of the court system.”
All the evidence is subject to a chain of custody and the labelled and signed exhibits are handed over to police.
If the decision is made to prosecute, the forensic nurses will write up a statement and may be called as an expert witness during the court case.