Interrogation rooms are sparsely furnished for forensic reasons, but the care provided by emergency workers whose job it is to help people through the nightmarish hours of the worst day of their lives is always warm.
This is the Sexual Assault Referral Center in Swindon and Wiltshire, a seemingly unremarkable building full of remarkable people. Since 2018, it has been run by First Light, a charity whose mission is to help often traumatized victims of sexual assault come to terms with their ordeal and find their way back to normality.
While many people’s first response is to dial 999 after a sexual assault, an increasing number of people from across Swindon and Wiltshire are going straight to SARC, thanks to an awareness campaign and strong links with health and social service professionals. First Light’s eight emergency workers, on call 24 hours a day, talk to survivors who may be feeling frightened, violated and confused through their options, stay with them while they are examined by forensic expertise and guide them through what comes next.
“Our goal is really to make sure people are seen as early as possible so that they have the most options,” says service manager Amy Mitchell. The first is whether to report the assault to the police.
First Light emergency workers are there to look after the physical and mental well-being of the survivor while collecting all necessary evidence in the event that a criminal case is pursued. “It’s a confidential service – we’re not going to tell the police. It’s your choice if you do,” says Amy.
“Whether they report or not, we will give them the exact same service. They can have bodily swabs taken for forensic testing which are kept for two years to give them time to think about reporting.
Health is the most pressing concern. “A lot of medication is urgent after a sexual assault, so we have HIV preventative medication, emergency contraception that works for up to five days after the assault, or hepatitis B vaccination.
Nurses are assigned to each emergency responder and perform the medical examination if requested. “The actual exam probably only lasts about ten minutes, but that’s what scares people,” Amy says.
“The rest of the time we’ll be in the consultation room discussing follow-up, checking that they understand we’re going to keep their samples and telling them what to do if they report it to the police.”
Approximately 60% of assault survivors who come to SARC continue to report the crime and First Light’s gentle and supportive treatment is a factor. “What we find is that they want to have those first two weeks after the assault to deal with the increased initial trauma and then make it an almost conscious decision rather than a knee-jerk decision to report.
“I think as professionals we’re quite ambivalent because we told the survivors when they came in ‘if that person is locked up now, will you feel better? and the answer is always no, because it’s about much more than that.
The conversation about the report is always generously sprinkled with realism. Cases can take up to three years to get to court, partly because of the backlog caused by Covid, but even before the pandemic it took between 18 months and two years.
“It’s a tough trip,” Amy said. “Often people say it’s helpful to have a conversation about what might happen if they report a sexual assault.
“He may not go anywhere if there is not enough evidence or he may get to the CPS but then go nowhere. Or it could go all the way to court. Sometimes it helps because once they know you have to prove there was no consent – and it’s really hard to prove – they understand what a difficult journey it is .
The highly publicized length of the process, along with the fear of being disbelieved, may explain why only 16% of sexual assaults in the UK are reported to the police. Many who report giving up because living with the emotional burden is too heavy.
After the initial meeting with the crisis response worker is complete, the case is assigned to a crisis response advocate, whose job it is to accompany the survivor through the difficult weeks and months that follow. Almost their first task is to re-explain everything they have ever been told because often survivors are unable to understand anything.
The crisis worker will help them find advice, help them change their locks and change their phone number – everything to make them feel safe. “They can be with that worker for a few months and during that time we can update them on the progress of their case, their safety and generally help them cope on a day-to-day basis,” says Amy.
“We try to find out if they are supported and we try to connect them with groups or people who share an interest so that they are not alone.”
Their case is eventually referred to an independent sexual violence counsellor, whose job it is to accompany them through the criminal justice process, if there is one, or through counselling. The hope is that by then they will be emotionally stable enough to deal with either.
In total, Swindon and Wiltshire SARC costs just over £1million a year. Funding comes from NHS England and the Office of Police and Crime Commissioner, but First Light must fundraise for any additional work it wishes to undertake. Raising awareness in ethnic communities and a project to persuade more men to report sexual assaults has been funded by a three-year Wiltshire Community Foundation grant of £15,000.
While First Light’s workload dropped during the shutdowns, it has increased since restrictions were eased. Currently, SARC sees an average of 25 forensic examinations per month and receives up to 100 calls regarding historical cases which often lead to counseling and psychological help.
Calls, especially those about historic assaults, can be influenced by headlines, such as those about Prince Andrew, high-profile court cases, or even assaults on TV shows and soap operas. “We know that no matter when you first tell someone, the response you get can be just as positive as if you told them right after the event.”
Amy is confident the charity is ready to handle the surge in appeals. “We are underutilized and we can do more,” she says. . “Right now, around 50 people a month are coming forward to the police, but we know there are so many more people we would like to see come forward, that we can support and help report to the police because of the protection factor. it brings.
“People here may find the low conviction rate disheartening, but ultimately we hope we are able to play our part and can have a positive psychological intervention, even if we can’t help lock someone up.” a.”
Contact SARC on 01793 781916 or email [email protected] To find out more about the charity and its work, or to donate, go to firstlight.org.uk.