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Community / Sexual assault referral service busier than expected

Photo: Shetland News

SHETLAND’s sexual assault referral centre (SARC) service at Lerwick’s Gilbert Bain Hospital is busier than expected since opening in April last year.

There is hope this means the barriers to people coming forward after a sexual assault have been lowered.

The Compass Centre and NHS Shetland are raising awareness of SARC as part of Sexual Health Awareness Week, which runs from 11 to 17 September.

SARC is a an NHS-run service for anyone who has experienced rape and/or sexual assault which allows for the collection of forensic medical evidence in Shetland instead of having to go south.

NHS Shetland’s lead sexual health nurse Andrea Sherwood said: “We were initially forecasting for three referrals in the first year, but we’ve actually had eight in total since opening in April 2022.

“Obviously, these are still small numbers in the grand scheme of things, but it’s encouraging that folk have felt able to come forward and use the service after an experience of sexual assault and/or rape, and you can’t underestimate the difference that a service like this being available locally can make to an individual after such a traumatic experience.”

The Forensic Medical Services (Victims of Sexual Offences) (Scotland) Act 2021 was a change in the law, which came into effect on 1 April 2022.

The act changes the way that survivors can access forensic medical exams (FMEs) after rape or sexual assault.

As of 1 April 2022, anyone, of any gender, aged 16 and over who has been raped or sexually assaulted, can self-refer for FMEs, meaning that they do not need to make any immediate decisions about whether to report to the police.

If they do choose to report to police, evidence can be now be collected locally via the SARC.

People can refer themselves to a SARC by calling their dedicated number, which is available 24/7 and free from landlines and mobiles: 0800 148 88 88.

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An FME is an examination performed by a specially trained healthcare professional to collect forensic evidence after a rape or sexual assault.

People can usually access an FME for up to seven days after the assault(s). After this window, it is unlikely – but not impossible – that evidence could be gathered.

The Compass Centre service manager Lisa Ward said: “The window for collecting forensic evidence is short, but we know that making the decision about whether or not to report rape and/or sexual assault can be really difficult.

“Self-referral means that you can make a decision about reporting when you feel ready, whilst also capturing any potential evidence at the time of the incident.

“And for both self-referrals and referrals that come via police to the SARC, this means that survivors in Shetland no longer have to travel off isle for evidence collection, which we know was a major barrier to reporting in the past.”

Any forensic evidence collected will be stored securely by the SARC for 26 months from the day of an FME.

This evidence will not be reviewed or analysed unless the person decides to report to the police.

It is a confidential NHS service, meaning that the police and other agencies will not know unless the person decides to tell them.

In certain circumstances, a healthcare professional might have to tell them if the person or others are at risk of further harm.

The person decides not to report before the end of the 26 months, they can choose to have their evidence destroyed or for certain evidence (such as personal items or clothing) to be returned.

After the 26 months, the evidence will have been safely destroyed, but the person will still have the option of reporting to the police.

Ward added: “This introduction of SARCs in April 2022 was a massive step forward for survivors of sexual violence all over the country, but an especially huge leap forward for survivors in Shetland, for whom access to forensic services on isle has gone from non-existent to what we see today in the course of just six short years, two of which were during lockdown..

“We are grateful to the staff at NHS Shetland who have made this happen and, after a successful first year of the service, we hope that, in raising awareness of the service, it will continue making the choice to access justice after sexual crime feel more accessible to survivors in Shetland.”

The sexual health clinic runs in outpatients at the Gilbert Bain Hospital on Monday evenings from 5.45pm – 7.45pm with a young person clinic from 4-5.30pm on Mondays in outpatients. NHS Shetland also offers occasional Friday afternoons at the Brae Health centre by appointment only.

The Compass Centre provides free and confidential information, support, and advocacy to any non-abusive person in Shetland of any gender (age 13+) who has been affected by sexual violence at any time in their life. It can be contacted on contact@compasscentre.org, or 01595 747174 Monday-Thursday 9am – 1.30pm.

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