A Victim-Centered Approach to the Sexual Assault Investigation Process

sexual assault investigation process

Patients who have fallen victim to sexual assault often present with medical needs that are compounded by the psychological trauma of the experience. The sensitive nature of these cases may leave healthcare at a loss for knowing what to say or do.

Supporting patients through traumatic experiences like a sexual assault and the sexual assault investigation process requires knowledge and expertise outside the routine care healthcare professionals are accustomed to providing. Sensitive patient presentations like this require a victim-centered approach that can both manage the patient’s medical needs and support the investigative process without further traumatizing the patient.

The unique challenges that accompany treating this patient population demand up-to-date knowledge in best practices related to the evolving forensic resources, and skills for dealing with patients experiencing emotions like fear, guilt, and shame. Continuing education focused on how to recognize and respond to sexual assault are essential to supporting victim recovery.

What is a Victim-Centered Approach?

A victim-centered approach is defined as “the systematic focus on the needs and concerns of a victim to ensure the compassionate and sensitive delivery of services in a non-judgmental manner”. This means that the needs and interests of the victim are the top priority.

When practicing a victim-centered approach, all medical professionals treating the patient are prioritizing sensitivity and responsiveness to the victims needs, while being especially aware of how to not re-victimize that patient through furthering the traumatic experience.

A victim-centered approach is a balanced approach that allows the providers to understand the offenses from the perspective of the victim while providing care that could produce anxiety and physical and emotional discomfort. By focusing on the patient’s needs, it can support the ability of the patient to be receptive to care while working through the intense emotions they may be experiencing.

Victim Concerns in Sexual Assault Investigations

Supporting victims through the sexual assault investigation process requires attention that goes well beyond their basic medical needs. While there is usually physical injury experienced during a sexual assault, psychological injury is often the dominating focus on the road to recovery.

The victim’s presentation and the response to the care being provided to them can be unique based on things such as past trauma, the events surrounding the assault, and perceived support systems. While the presentation may be highly personal, most will benefit from the attention to meeting some basic needs and supportive actions. Engaging in meaningful continuing education on the topic of a victim-centered approach will help victim concerns be more easily recognized and managed. 

Basic Needs

Following an assault, victims can benefit from attention to some basic needs as they process the trauma and subsequent emotions. These are often simple, like bringing food, being sensitive to discomfort, and creating space for them to process. Approaching the victim in a non-judgmental manner with care and compassion will allow the victim to recognize the healthcare provider as an ally in their care.

Meeting these basic needs will foster a trusting relationship between the healthcare providers and victims. Something as simple as making sure the patient knows that what they are saying is being believed can go a long way in making them feel safe and secure while returning to them some control in a scenario where they often feel powerless.

Reassure Them They Are Safe

The loss of control experienced during a sexual assault can leave the victim shaken and afraid for their safety long after the event. It is important to make sure the victim knows that they are in a safe place during the sexual assault investigation process and that resources are available to support their confidence in their safety during their recovery.

Helping the victim realize that they are safe may take some time. Being sensitive to the impact assault has on their sense of personal safety and making an effort to continuously reinforce that they are safe is crucial to recovery.

Protecting Victims from Further Trauma

One of the top priorities in managing a patient who has experienced a sexual assault is to do everything possible to mitigate any additional traumatizing experiences. The forensic components of the sexual assault investigation process can be invasive and uncomfortable. It is essential to pay special attention to making the process as tolerable as possible.

Reinforcing the knowledge that the healthcare team is there to do everything in their power to contribute to their healing and recovery can have a huge impact on patient outcomes. Listening to the victim, validating their experience, and opening the lines of safe and effective communication are important. Identifying all team members involved in their care and making sure they know everyone’s role is a great start.

Finally, it’s important to make sure the victim knows what happened to them was not their fault. Equally as significant is empowering the victim through their recovery. Victims can experience feelings of hopelessness and shame and need to be reassured that they have the strength to recover and will be supported in doing so.

The Value of a Victim-Centered Approach in Sexual Assault

Encountering a patient who is a victim of sexual assault may leave you not knowing exactly what to say or to do. The patient clearly needs care and support, but many healthcare professionals aren’t empowered with the skills and knowledge base to step into the support role. Understanding and applying a victim-centered approach that places the patient’s needs above all else can help you develop a caring relationship with the patient that starts them on the road to healing. 

Forensic Evidence Collection: A Victim-Centered Approach offered by Premiere Education gives you the insight you need into developing a victim-centered approach to the sexual assault investigation process and can help you identify your role in supporting the victim’s recovery. All our courses are created by licensed professionals. Forensic Evidence Collection: A Victim-Centered Approach was developed by Anne Cockerham, PhD, RN, CNM, WHNP-BC, CNE, and professor at Frontier Nursing University.

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