After The Rape

Rape is one of a woman’s worst nightmares, yet it happens hundreds of times a year in the Reno area. Here’s what happens after it’s reported.

Photo By David Robert

Rape is one of a woman’s worst nightmares. Here’s what happens after it’s reported.

It all happens so fast, but it seems to last an eternity.

A torrent of emotions swells inside of you. You feel confused, stunned, angry, nauseous, frightened, worthless and helpless. You’re in pain, but at the same time, you feel numb.

You’ve been raped.

You have your health to think about. You have your safety to consider. You worry about what your friends and family will think. You wish this was only a horrible dream, and that you’ll wake up soon.

For victims of sexual assault, the road to recovery can be an emotionally painful one, but local law enforcement agencies, members of the medical community, Crisis Call Center advocates and the Washoe County District Attorney’s Office are working to make sure that victims don’t fall through the cracks.

A year and a half ago, these agencies coordinated the Sexual Assault Response Team program. SART is designed to help sexual assault victims and to better track cases of sexual assault. The program takes victims through reporting the crime and receiving prompt medical attention and a forensic examination. Victim advocates with the Crisis Call Center offer emotional sup- port during the ordeal and make sure victims’ needs are attended to. Later in the process, victim advocates from the Victim-Witness Assistance Program in the Washoe County district attorney’s office will help victims along in the criminal justice system by providing them with information on services that are available to victims and explaining criminal justice proceedings.

So, what should you do if find yourself in this situation? Since each sexual assault case can have a different outcome, this breakdown depicts one scenario in which a victim decides to report the sexual assault to police.

reporting the crime

After you have been assaulted and believe that the attacker has left the scene, get to a safe place. If you have potentially life-threatening injuries, call 911 or get to a hospital immediately. If your injuries are not life-threatening, call a law enforcement agency or the Crisis Call Center.

Sparks Police Detective Greta Fye said that in a typical situation, a police officer will come out to meet the victim after she calls to report the crime. The officer will determine if a crime has been committed and will make a police report, asking a series of questions: Do you know who your attacker is? What is your relationship to that person? Where did the attack occur? Have you bathed? Where’s the clothing you were wearing when attacked? The officer also checks for bodily injuries.

Fye said that it is very important for victims not to bathe, change or wash the clothes they were wearing when attacked.

“I know this is a very traumatic situation, but she needs to preserve evidence herself,” she said. “We don’t want [victims] to shower, because, basically, their body is a crime scene. They may have fluids from the suspect, and that would include anything—saliva, semen, blood, any of those things.”

Fye said that if a person waits several days before reporting a rape or has bathed after an attack, evidence can still be collected from the clothes if they are left unwashed. Bruises, lacerations or other injuries that occurred during the attack can also be recorded as evidence of the assault.

When the police officer has gathered enough information and decides the victim needs a forensic examination, or SART exam, a victim advocate from the Crisis Call Center’s Sexual Assault Support Services team and a SART nurse will be dispatched to the Northern Nevada Medical Center in Sparks to meet the victim there. The police officer will usually escort the victim to the hospital. The victim will be admitted, triaged and sent to a specially equipped room, where he or she will be given the SART exam.

Fye, who investigates cases involving domestic violence, child abuse and sexual abuse, said she tries to interview a victim before the SART exam so that detectives can quickly chase any leads that may result in the arrest of a suspect. She said a police officer or a detective might also talk to a SART nurse or victim advocate to give them some background on what happened to the victim.

Kathy Jacobs, Sexual Assault Support Services coordinator, said that when law enforcement or a hospital emergency room contacts the Crisis Call Center, one of the center’s 19 on-call victim advocates will go to the hospital. The center will also contact one of the SART nurses, who are on-call 24 hours a day, and tell her to go to the medical center. Victim advocates are volunteers who undergo special training in crisis intervention to help sexual assault victims and their family members deal with the situation. Unlike law enforcement and nurses, they are not there in an official capacity.

“The role of the advocate, at that point, is simply to be there to support the victim[s], to explain to them what’s going on, what’s going to happen, answer any questions … and basically to attend to their needs,” Jacobs said.

Quilts and teddy bears help create a sense of security for victims in the exam room at Northern Nevada Medical Center.

Photo By David Robert

the sart examination

By the time the victim arrives at the hospital, the advocate and SART nurse are, ideally, already there to meet her. The nurse will direct the victim to the examination room to begin the SART exam.

Jacobs said the room is designed to make the experience less traumatic for the victim. For example, examination tables are covered with cozy quilts in pastel colors, and teddy bears are given to victims to comfort them.

Before the SART program was implemented, Jacob explained, victims were taken to hospital emergency rooms. With medical staff having to attend to more immediate emergencies, she said, sexual assault victims weren’t getting the prompt attention they needed. SART nurses, however, are trained to focus on sexual assault victims and to collect forensic evidence to help police identify her attacker. Jacobs said the nurses go to Las Vegas to be trained in evidence collection. About four area nurses are qualified to do SART exams, and two nurses are qualified to do exams on juvenile sexual assault victims, who are part of a separate program called Child Assault Response and Evaluations (CARES).

Bill Davis, medical director of the SART program, said the nurses don’t need to know all the circumstances that led to the attack, since it is up to law enforcement to investigate that, but they need to know what happened in order to determine what medical tests to do and where to collect evidence.

Davis said that after a victim arrives in the examination room, she’s asked to disrobe on a white sheet, called an evidence collection sheet. Any evidence that’s on the victim’s clothes—carpet fibers, hairs from the attacker—will fall on the sheet. A SART nurse will bring out the sexual assault evidence kit, a package put together by the Washoe County Crime Lab, which contains the paperwork that the nurse will need to conduct the exam.

The kit includes swabs and slides for collecting samples and diagrams of a male or female body (depending on the victim’s sex) called bodygrams, which she uses to mark where injuries are found on the victim. The kit also includes a list of questions that the nurse will ask the victim, such as whether the victim has taken a shower, urinated, eaten, smoked or douched since the attack, and inquiries about the victim’s medical history. The nurse will also ask if there was more than one attacker, if the victim was penetrated and if it was with a penis, fingers or other objects, if the attacker had licked, kissed or bitten the victim and other related questions. Injuries will be photographed.

A nurse will also use a piece of equipment called a culdoscope, a device inserted into the vaginal area, which is used during the pelvic examination to check for internal injuries that would indicate forced sex. Davis said the culdoscope is hooked to a videotape machine, which records the pelvic exam. The nurse and other medical experts can analyze the examination from the videotape and the photographs printed from it.

The nurse will inspect the victim’s body to find pubic hairs or other body particles belonging to the attacker. She may also use something called a Wood’s lamp, which is used in a dark room and causes areas of semen to fluoresce when the ultraviolet light is run over the body. Swabs will be taken from the vaginal and/or rectal areas and from the mouth and skin.

In addition to these inspections, the victim will be tested for sexually transmitted diseases. A blood test will be taken to check for HIV. A urine sample will be taken to look for the presence of drugs or alcohol. Female victims will also be tested for pregnancy.

All of these tests will help the nurse determine what prophylaxis, or medication to prevent infection, to give to the victim. Antibiotics and other medication will be given to the victim to prevent certain STDs, like gonorrhea and chlamydia. Medication can also be given to victims who don’t want to risk getting pregnant.

Davis said the SART exam lasts two to three hours, and the county covers the examination costs. After the exam has been completed, the sheet, swabs, slides and the victim’s clothes will be individually numbered, and the paperwork, videotapes and photographs will be collected. Davis said he reviews all the material and talks with the SART nurse about the case. The evidence is then sent to the Washoe County Crime Lab.

after the examination

Once the SART exam has been completed, the victim will be given a pair of sweats, as well as underwear, socks or any other clothing items she might need to replace the clothes that were removed as evidence. The victim may be interviewed by law enforcement after the exam if there are any additional questions. The victim advocate from Sexual Assault Support Services will accompany the victim and provide her with information on filing a police report, explaining what legal options she has, where she can find counseling and answer any other questions she may have. If the victim doesn’t have a ride home or a place to stay, the advocate can arrange a cab ride home or a safe place to stay overnight.

In the following days or weeks, the advocate will continue to be available to escort the victim to the police station, to court or anywhere else she feels she needs a supportive figure. Sexual Assault Support Services also provides peer-support groups for rape victims, who are, by this point, often referred to as “rape survivors.” The group meets every other week and is facilitated by a Crisis Call Center staff member. Jacobs said survivors get together and discuss what’s going on in their lives and how they’re coping in the aftermath of the attack.

“They’re able to see victims who maybe have progressed along in the healing process a little bit further than they have, and they can see that it is possible to get there,” she said.

The group facilitator will meet with a victim before including her in the group to make sure the group is a good fit for her, and vice versa.

But it’s up to the victim to take advantage of these services, Jacobs said.

“Sometimes, [victims] don’t really ever want to hear from you again, because you’re a part of a bad experience, and other clients really want you to be there and to help them get through things,” she said. “We will do whatever it is we can do to make that process easier for them.”

The examination room at Northern Nevada Medical Center, where SART exams are conducted.

Photo By David Robert

If police have gathered enough evidence and have identified a suspect or have made an arrest, the case will be handed over to the Washoe County district attorney’s office for prosecution. At this point, a victim advocate from the Victim-Witness Assistance Center will contact the victim.

Lidia Osmetti, director of the Victim-Witness Assistance Center, said the center provides many services: referrals to social services, counseling and other criminal justice agencies; criminal justice system orientation programs to familiarize victims with the courtroom, court process and key figures; and information and explanation of criminal justice proceedings in layperson’s terms to help victims understand the system.

A victim advocate will inform the victim of her rights, provide transportation or accompany the victim to court, notify the victim about any change in the status of her case, provide employer or landlord/creditor intervention and be there to support and reassure the victim.

Osmetti said that when a victim reports the crime and files a police report, she is eligible for state compensation under Nevada Revised Statutes 217.290. The state will compensate the victim up to $1,000, which can be used to cover counseling services and follow-up medical care (NRS 217.320).

“We encourage [victims] to report so that [perpetrators] can be held accountable for their actions,” Osmetti said. “These are very difficult things for victims to go through. It’s important [for them] to know that there are people here to help them through the process.”

not all cases are alike

Not all victims choose to report the crime or press charges for various reasons, according to Jacobs. A victim may feel ashamed and blame herself, or she may worry about retaliation, especially if the attacker was someone she knows, she said.

Generally, most sexual assault cases are committed by an acquaintance.

Jacobs said that out of the 166 cases that the Sexual Assault Support Services has responded to this year, in 102 of the cases, acquaintances or people close to the victim committed the attacks, including three cases involving a family member. Seventeen cases involved sexual assault by a person in an intimate relationship with the victim, such as a boyfriend or spouse. Forty-five cases were committed by a stranger. In two cases, the victims didn’t know whether the attacker was a stranger or an acquaintance.

Jacobs said she doesn’t know why sexual assaults by acquaintances are more common, but she reasoned that people often let their guard down with someone they know.

“I think sometimes people are more trusting of acquaintances, and they might have put themselves in a riskier situation, not intentionally, but because of the degree of comfort with someone,” she said. [They] don’t think someone [they] know would do something like that to hurt [them]. Unfortunately, not everyone you know is a nice person.”

Fye said that quite often in acquaintance rape situations, alcohol and drugs are involved and can inhibit a person’s awareness of danger. She said people should always keep an eye on their drinks and never accept a drink from someone they don’t know very well. If a drink is left unattended for a while, Fye said, it’s best to discard it rather than risk the chance that it could have been tainted with certain drugs. She added that people should avoid going off to remote places with someone they don’t know well.

Jacobs agreed, but also pointed out that sometimes sexual assault can occur even if you follow these rules.

“There’s a lot of things that you can do, but you also have to realize that sometimes bad things happen, and you’re not to blame because you weren’t able to prevent it in some way,” she said. “I think victims tend to take a lot of responsibility, and I don’t want anybody to think because they didn’t do A, B and C, it’s their fault that something happened to them.”

Although sexual assault can be a random situation, Jacobs said the most important way a person can protect herself is to trust her intuition.

“If you get a bad feeling about a situation, you need to get out of it,” she said. “A lot of times, people will put those feelings aside rather than maybe look foolish. As an example, when you’re waiting for an elevator, and the elevator door opens, and there’s a lone man standing [inside], and you kind of get a really weird feeling. But instead of waiting for the next elevator, you just go ahead and [get inside] because you don’t want to look silly. I think people, a lot of times, tend to ignore those feelings rather than look foolish. A person’s intuition is there for a reason. You really need to pay attention to it.”

In the event a person decides not to report the crime or file a police report, Jacobs said a victim should get medical help anyway. She suggests that a victim get tested for STDs, HIV and pregnancy and try to get counseling. She said Sexual Assault Support Services advocates will also come out to talk to the victim, even if she’s unwilling to go to the police.

Fye said that sometimes, victims will report the crime but then decide they don’t want to continue with the investigation. She encourages victims to come forward and put their attackers behind bars, because sometimes, these perpetrators have committed these crimes before and may do it again. She said victims should not be afraid to talk to the police.

“They need to know that we’re not judgmental,” she said. “If they walk in and say, ‘Hey, I was drinking really heavily, this guy seemed real nice, he said he’d give me a ride home'—[they’re just] blaming themselves. They think they put themselves in that position, and they somehow deserved it. Well, they didn’t.

“If you made some poor choices, so be it. The person who did this to you is the person who needs to be held responsible for what happened."