Striving for a better future for victims of sexual assault – Debbie’s story
The topic of sexual assault and rape is extremely sensitive and unfortunately assault is an all too often occurrence. The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that for the year ending March 2020 there were 773,000 adults aged 16 to 74 years who were victims of sexual assault (including attempts)*.
With this in mind, it is important to highlight the services that are available to the people in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight (HIOW) community if they ever find themselves, or someone they know, in the terrible situation of being victim to a sexual assault.
We spoke with manager, Debbie Ludlam, who works as part of the Solent Treetops SARC team based in the Treetops Sexual Assault Referral Centre (SARC) in Portsmouth. Debbie tells us more about the service and common misconceptions about sexual assault that can potentially be damaging if not addressed more often.
Debbie, along with the rest of her team, are striving to provide even better care for those who use their services. “We offer forensic medical examinations to collect evidence to support a criminal justice investigation, provide time restricted medications such as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) for HIV and emergency contraception and crisis support to anyone in the HIOW area who has recently been raped or sexually assaulted - we also provide a young person’s independent sexual violence advice (ISVA) service, says SARC manager, Debbie Ludlam.
Forensic medical examinations, which depending on the type of assault the person has experienced, is important for collecting forensic evidence. There are also different forensic windows in which these examinations can be carried out which range from 48 hours to seven days – “it’s important that people do come to us as soon as they are able” says Debbie.
“Not only is the process helping to collect evidence for a potential prosecution, it’s also in place to help the victims with their overall health and wellbeing. This procedure can be extremely upsetting as it’s often carried out shortly after the assault and can trigger flashbacks or stressful memories. We make sure they are supported throughout and are there to help in any way we can.
“People do not need to approach the police beforehand to be able to come to us, however we cannot carry out a forensic medical examination if the person is adamant that they will not report the assault later down the line. We offer self-referrals to people who are undecided and need some time. We can provide signposting for people if they need further assistance - we do this whether a person has had the forensic examination or not. It’s vital for people to know what support is out there for them and for them to know they do not have to go through this on their own. It’s also ok for people to change their minds about the examination and we can support them through this too.
Debbie continues: “Sometimes items are taken by the police for evidence such as the clothes or underwear they were wearing. We can provide them with new clothing and we also have shower facilities for them to use – most often people want to wash as soon as they are able. Unfortunately, people may be at risk of pregnancy or Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs); we can provide emergency contraception and support them in getting appropriate medical care, often at a sexual health clinic. If someone has injuries that need treating, these must be prioritised and people should seek medical attention before going to Treetops (i.e. a walk in centre, Urgent Treatment Centre, minor injuries unit or A&E- they also have a duty to provide any time sensitive medication they might need such as emergency contraception).
“As part of an initiative between Boots and HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, we can also supply a care bag to them which contains everything they might need, such as a toothbrush, shower gel, hairbrushes, and combs etc.”
It might be surprising for people to hear that most often than not, people know their attacker, very rarely does sexual assault happen stranger to stranger, but of course it is still possible.
“A lot of people also think sexual assault can only happen to women, but this is not the case” says Debbie. “Men can experience assault and we are there to support them. A lot of men decide not to come forward as there is a stigma surrounding men and sexual assault, and that is dangerous. Everyone should be able to feel like they can access support without facing any discrimination or additional abuse. I’m passionate about making sure our service is accessible for anyone, no matter who they are.
“I love my job, even though it’s tough I come to work to support people through a crisis and want to do everything I can to help them. We’re not just a facility to help take evidence, we are there for the person and want them to feel safe and supported and that’s really important to me.”
The SARC service is free to access and confidential and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. If you are over 18, SARC will only share your details with other services or agencies with your consent unless there is a concern that you or anyone else is at risk of serious harm. If you are under 18 years of age, then Solent has a duty of care to inform safeguarding teams. For more information visit: https://www.solent.nhs.uk/sarc/ or call 0300 123 6616 for free and confidential advice.