The Forensics Protocol Behind Sexual Assault


Over the decades, the criminal justice system and health care practitioners have greatly improved the way they respond to sexual assault victims and crimes, even creating a national protocol detailing these guidelines.

Sexual assault is a broad term that generally describes a sexual activity in which the victim has not consented. Rape is the most common scenario of sexual assault, but it could also include coercing someone to look at sexual images or sexually exposing oneself to another. No matter the case, sexual abuse victims are never at fault.

With over 460,000 sexual assault victims in the US each year, the collection of evidence is crucial to successfully prosecute the offenders. This is where the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination (SAFE) comes in. Samples and swabs are collected from a person’s body, clothing, or personal articles. Ideally, these samples are collected within 72 hours to yield the most favorable results. To keep the evidence in the most pristine condition, forensic experts recommend that the victim refrains from showering, brushing teeth, changing clothes, eating, drinking, combing hair, or using the restroom before the evidence is collected. Physical injuries are of utmost importance and will get immediate attention. Keep in mind, the victim can stop or skip any of the SAFE steps.

A Sexual Assault Evidence Kit (SAEK) or “rape kit” is used to house the evidence. This physical kit includes specimen containers, envelopes, instructions, and an activities checklist that teams should complete at the crime scene. The SAEK is usually performed at a health center or hospital by well-trained staff that has relevant academic and clinic experience. Oftentimes, victims are directed to rape-focused facilities that employ registered nurses who perform the exams in a sensitive, dignified, and victim-centered manner.

The physical examination may include vaginal and anal tests, blood and urine samples, taking photos, and other collection pieces such as stray hair.

During the examination, the victim will be questioned about their health history and details about the assault itself. An important disclosure is if the victim was involved in any sexual activity before the assault since DNA collected needs to connect to the perpetrator directly.

Implementing the above guidelines gives hope that the victim will have a positive experience with the criminal justice and health care systems and contribute positively to their overall healing. The main goals are always to support the victims, while also punishing the sexual offenders.

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