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Here’s What Experts Say to Do After Experiencing Sexual Assault

We consulted six professionals in Alaska who work with survivors of sexual assault, including a therapist, a law enforcement officer, advocates for survivors, a nurse and a prosecutor. We compiled their guidance on the choices survivors can make.

Lisa Larson-Walker/ProPublica

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This story was co-published with the Anchorage Daily News, a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

In the course of reporting Unheard and interviewing dozens of survivors, questions surfaced again and again about what to do after a sexual assault, and how to navigate social services and the legal system.

The following resources are intended to inform survivors, their family members and friends, and others in the community about ways they can seek help.

We consulted six professionals in Alaska, including a therapist, a law enforcement officer, advocates for survivors, a nurse and a prosecutor. The following is a compilation of their guidance on choices survivors can make. Each case is unique; here they offer general advice for adult survivors. Each expert comes from a different background, and the advice they offer sometimes differs based on their professional orientation.

(Some of the quotations below have been condensed for clarity.)

Section 1: Reporting Sexual Assault

Section 2: Forensic Exams and Investigations

Section 3: Emotional and Psychological Care

Section 4: Dealing With the Legal System

Section 1: Reporting Sexual Assault

I’ve just been assaulted. Where do I begin?

  • Do not wait to seek urgent medical care if you need it.

  • A crisis hotline can help you assess your options.

  • The choice of whom to tell is personal. Good options may include law enforcement, a sexual assault advocate, a medical professional, a therapist, and friends and family.

  • Telling law enforcement as soon as possible can help preserve evidence. But it is not required. You can still get medical care, counseling, and a sexual assault exam (sometimes known as a “rape kit” exam) even if you choose not to report to law enforcement.

“We like to say there’s no wrong way to access our services. … Certainly if someone has been assaulted or feels like they may have been assaulted, then to call right away, we would very much encourage that. No one ever has to give their name or identify themselves in receiving support through our crisis line [800-478-8999].

“If somebody needs ... immediate medical care, then they should go to the emergency room. Especially if they’re in pain or they’ve been strangled or have other physical injuries that need treatment. … We don’t have that kind of medical equipment at the clinic that they would have at a hospital. Strangulation can be deadly.”

— Keeley Olson, executive director, Standing Together Against Rape (STAR), Anchorage

Keeley Olson joined STAR Alaska in 2007 as program director and became the executive director in 2015. Olson studied social work in Montana and has spent her career in the area of domestic violence and sexual assault in Montana, Washington and Alaska. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News)

“Contact ... our [911] emergency dispatch right away so we can get the resources going there. What they’re going to get with that, based on what they report, is patrol officers. ... It’s a priority call. If they state any significant injuries, we’re going to have paramedics head that way to get an initial evaluation.”

— Lt. Shaun Henry, former commander, Crimes Against Children Unit and Special Victims Unit, Anchorage Police Department

Lt. Shaun Henry has over 25 years of experience in law enforcement and is currently the APD training commander. He has worked as a patrol sergeant, training instructor, SWAT member and lieutenant. He spent the first half of his career with the San Diego Police Department in California and has been with the APD since 2006. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)

How do I find a crisis line?

  • STAR Alaska serves the Anchorage area and Southcentral Alaska. It also runs a 24-hour hotline available to anyone in need. The person on the other end of the line will ask you a series of questions to help you decide on next steps. Their number is: 907-276-7273 or 800-478-899 (toll free).

  • Crisis lines serving other parts of Alaska can be found here, in a listing by the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.

  • The National Sexual Assault Hotline is an option for people in Alaska and other states. Their number is: 800-656-HOPE

“If somebody feels like they’ve been assaulted, the top priority is to make sure that regardless of whether it’s something that can be prosecuted, are they getting the medical care that they need? Are they being assured that they’re OK? Are they getting prophylaxis medications to avoid long-term physical consequences such as pregnancy or STIs [sexually transmitted infections] that go with that? And are they receiving follow-up care, and are they getting advocacy and services to help them through that process? ... We can’t control what happens with the criminal legal proceedings. ... We focus on what we’re doing to help the survivor.”

— Keeley Olson, Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) in Anchorage

How do I report anonymously?

  • Call a crisis line. Advocates can talk you through your options, and potentially call law enforcement on your behalf without revealing your identity.

  • As part of your anonymous report, you may choose to have a forensic exam to collect evidence from your body. The forensic exam kit will not be tested for DNA unless the survivor opts to deanonymize and make a report to law enforcement. But the evidence is preserved, giving you time to make that decision.

“Work with the shelter or just show up at the hospital. … There’s no name attached to [an anonymous exam kit]. It’s just a number. So they could, down the road, call [police] and say ... ‘I’d like to give a report of what happened with this kit.’”

— Carly Wells, sexual assault victim advocate, Fairbanks

Carly Wells is a victim advocate at a service organization in Fairbanks who works on a sexual assault response team (SART). She has worked with dozens of survivors as they navigate social services and the legal system. (Marc Lester /Anchorage Daily News)

What if I didn’t tell anyone right away?

  • You can report an assault at any point. The earlier you choose to do so, however, the easier it will be for police to investigate.

  • Some people may decide to report years after the event. You can always start with a counselor or therapist.

  • Alaska has no statute of limitations for most felony sex crimes.

“It doesn’t matter if it was today, a couple weeks ago or last year. Report it as soon as they’re comfortable reporting. ... [A forensic exam] is not required. We will still do an investigation. We’ll still have a detective take the case and work it.”

— Lt. Shaun Henry, Anchorage Police Department

“We have a full week from the time of the event to be able to get them in for a SART [sexual assault response team] response. ... It is advanced forensic work with our crime lab that they have found that they’ve been able to get viable evidence up to seven days.”

— Keeley Olson, Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) in Anchorage

“I treat a lot of people who are long-term survivors of sexual assault and abuse and who may have had it happen to them at very young ages, who are dealing with it in my office now, 40s and 50s, even 60s, because that’s a post-traumatic stress response. ... Sometimes the revelation is late in life that I actually am a survivor of this.

— Ebony McClain, clinical therapist, Anchorage

Ebony McClain began her career as a schoolteacher, later earning her master’s degree in clinical counseling and her Ph.D. in psychology. She frequently treats clients with histories of trauma, abuse and domestic violence. (Marc Lester/Anchorage Daily News)

Section 2: Forensic Exams and Investigations

I’ve just been assaulted. What should I do to preserve the evidence?

  • Try not to bathe, eat or clean up before seeking care.

  • Keep your clothes and store them in paper bags.

  • If you choose to get a “rape kit” exam, more formally called a sexual assault forensic exam, it is best to do so as soon as possible.

“We don’t really need them to gather things. What we’d rather they do is just not change, modify or get rid of things. Don’t change clothes. Don’t throw clothes away. Don’t try to clean up evidence or things like that. That’s all stuff that we need to collect. That’s very crucial to the investigation. The more we can preserve while helping the victim out, protecting their dignity and everything, that’s the priority. The more we preserve is going to help us get a better case.”

— Lt. Shaun Henry, Anchorage Police Department

“It’s best not to bathe or shower if possible, not to be real vigorous in cleaning. If any part of the assault was oral, not to brush one’s teeth or eat or drink anything before going in for an examination. That’s not always feasible and it doesn’t mean that they’re going to destroy every bit of evidence if they’ve done that. ... [Put clothing] in a paper bag, not plastic, that plastic can degrade evidence.”

— Keeley Olson, Standing Together Against Rape (STAR) in Anchorage

Where do I get a sexual assault forensic exam?

  • Availability varies from city to city.

    • In Anchorage, call STAR Alaska or police for instructions. The forensic exam site is a special center not in a hospital.

    • In Fairbanks, forensic exams take place at Fairbanks Memorial Hospital.

    • In hub cities, call the local crisis line or hospital emergency department for information.

    • In villages, call a crisis hotline or law enforcement for information on where to go, usually the nearest hub city.

Who is the person doing the exam?

  • Exams are conducted by medical professionals with special training, not law enforcement.

“I’m a nurse. … I happen to have extra training on how to collect evidence, but everything I’m doing is health care. …We are not part of law enforcement in any way, shape or form.”

“People know about the process or they think about ‘the kit.’ … But a lot of people don’t know what they want to do by the time I see them. ... The expectation, for me, is helping them navigate that decision or doing the best I can to get the evidence collected.”

— Christine Fontaine, forensic nurse examiner, South Peninsula Hospital, Homer

Christine Fontaine in the lobby of Homer’s new Center of Excellence clinic, a space dedicated to providing services for sexual assault survivors. Fontaine provides medical treatment, evidence collection and emotional support to survivors in the immediate aftermath of sexual assault. She moved to Homer from Chicago 25 years ago, working first in family planning and women’s health before becoming a registered nurse. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)

Who will be there to support me if I have an exam?

  • You can bring a trusted friend or family member.

  • Many shelters or crisis centers also offer an advocate to support you.

“Grief takes you to a different place. You don’t know how to put one foot in front of the other. So to have somebody who’s there with you, who can help you walk through it, is more powerful than I think most people understand.

“Cry with them, laugh with them, or be silent. [An advocate] will help you navigate the forensic exam process and help answer your questions regarding making a report to law enforcement. If you have a trusted friend or family member they can be there for you as an advocate too.”

— Carly Wells, victim advocate, Fairbanks

What should I do afterward?

  • Physical and emotional self-care are important.

  • Connect to others you trust.

“After your exam, take a warm bath to help your body heal. Eating and sleeping also help. Don’t hesitate to reach out for help.”

— Carly Wells, victim advocate, Fairbanks

How do I find out about the results of my exam? What do they mean?

  • If you make a report to law enforcement, they or an advocate should contact you about your results. It may take a long time.

  • DNA evidence can show that sex occurred, but it cannot prove consent or nonconsent.

“DNA testing often takes quite a while for the lab to do. But when we get those results back, we will reach out almost immediately.”

— Lt. Shaun Henry, Anchorage Police Department

“Don’t do this just because you think it’s going to solve the whole case. … I think a lot of [survivors] think, ‘I’m going to have results soon and then they’re going to catch this guy and it’s going to prove this, this and this.’ And that’s not normally the case. So it’s just a piece of the puzzle.”

— Carly Wells, victim advocate, Fairbanks

Section 3: Emotional and Psychological Care

What kinds of feelings do people experience after an assault?

  • Sexual assault can lead to a broad range of emotional responses. Each person is different.

  • A variety of professionals can help treat the trauma associated with sexual assault in different ways.

“In the immediate aftermath, I’ve seen everything from emotional numbness to extreme anger. ... One moment they’re numb, the next moment they are expressing outrage or intense crying, full-on dissociation. … And I’ve also had women who’ve questioned themselves and the reality of whether they contributed to the assault. I see a lot of shame and guilt associated with that. And I have seen women who have actually continued relationships with people who have sexually assaulted them. ... It’s a real abuse of power on the person who is on the end of that assault. There are so many reactions that you have when … you have been controlled, abused, assaulted, violated.”

— Ebony McClain, clinical therapist, Anchorage

“We kind of expect, if you’re raped, it’s going to be obvious. And most of the time, it’s not. … There’s not massive proof of force. And sometimes that seems to make the victim feel worse, almost. … That doesn’t mean we don’t believe you, or that there wasn’t something horrendous that happened.”

— Carly Wells, victim advocate, Fairbanks

What are some common coping mechanisms? What should I know about drugs, alcohol and sexual partners?

  • Many survivors use substances in the aftermath of a sexual assault, although it can be detrimental for their health.

  • For a variety of reasons, survivors sometimes seek out multiple sexual partners after an assault.

“[This is] where I see a lot of the most unhealthy coping: either with not talking at all, not disclosing at all, not feeling safe enough or emotionally safe enough to disclose with anyone, or abusing alcohol or drugs.

“A lot of times [seeking out multiple partners], that’s about the shame and the guilt of abuse. So if I already feel like I’m unworthy and I’m not good enough and there’s no value in my body, then it doesn’t matter who I sleep with. ... And then there’s the other side of the coin where some women have felt like their worth is in sex only. ... So they’re going to take the power back by ... having sex with someone.”

— Ebony McClain, clinical therapist, Anchorage

What are some positive coping strategies?

“I encourage my women to first journal and to have one trusted individual that you can actually talk to about your experience. I also encourage that women join groups, that they join survivor groups, so that they’re able to speak to other women about the experiences that they’ve had.”

— Ebony McClain, clinical therapist, Anchorage

Someone told me they experienced a sexual assault. How can I be helpful?

  • Respond with compassion.

  • Avoid judgment.

  • Listen.

“I say empathy and compassion and validation of the experience, that it’s real. … People have to come from that place of being nonjudgmental and open and be listening as opposed to telling the person what they should do. It’s just more important that you actually listen to a person’s experience fully.”

— Ebony McClain, clinical therapist, Anchorage

“Be gentle. Be tender. Be kind. Ask how you can support them. Offer to go with them to the hospital or to the police. Don’t judge. Don’t ask too many questions. Be a safe and supportive place for them — they are traumatized, they need kindness and someone to empower them to make their own choices since their choice was just taken away with the assault. Ask them if you can hug them — if they say no, don’t be offended. Be OK with their pain — don’t try and take it away or brush it off — let them grieve and be sad. Sit in that place with them. “

— Carly Wells, victim advocate, Fairbanks

Section 4: Dealing With the Legal System

I reported my assault to the police. When will I hear from them?

  • Investigations can take a long time.

  • Survivors can reach out to the detective on their case for status updates.

“The detectives will stay in touch with them and advise them along the way on how the case is progressing. …Regarding the actual police investigation, they’ll have their case number and the contact information of the lead detective. ...They’re welcome to call anytime they want. We will usually contact them when something new develops or we want to move further with the case one way or the other. But there’s no set timeline.”

— Lt. Shaun Henry, Anchorage Police Department

Who does the prosecutor represent?

“We represent the state of Alaska. We often work very closely with victims. We always listen to what the victims say, but they’re not our client, as it were. That is really the state of Alaska and within that, this idea of [pursuing] justice.”

— Jenna Gruenstein, assistant attorney general, Office of Special Prosecutions, state of Alaska

Jenna Gruenstein, a former assistant district attorney, serves as the prosecutor assigned to represent the Alaska Department of Law in the Department of Public Safety’s Sex Assault Kit Initiative. Gruenstein specializes in the prosecution of sexual crimes committed against adults and children and has led trainings across the state for law enforcement, prosecutors, advocates and medical personnel. (Bill Roth/Anchorage Daily News)

Will there be criminal charges against the perpetrator?

  • Not all reported cases will lead to charges or a trial.

  • But some prosecutions for sexual assault are successful.

“It depends. …The prosecutor reviews a case to see whether he or she believes it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury. That is a high standard, and it means that some cases will not be prosecuted even when the prosecutor believes that a crime occurred. We’re going to be looking at all of the evidence available in each case and make a determination based on our review of that evidence.”

— Jenna Gruenstein, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Special Prosecutions

Why do prosecutors offer plea bargains?

“There’s several reasons, and I think that probably the best reason for it is that it offers certainty. You never know what’s going to happen at a trial. Even in a really strong case, something could happen and you could end up not getting a conviction.

“… By avoiding a trial, you avoid making a victim get up on the stand and testify. … There are times that testifying in a case can actually be somewhat cathartic, at least in the long run … but for most people, it’s exceptionally stressful to get up and to testify about what may be one of the worst incidents in their life.”

— Jenna Gruenstein, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Special Prosecutions

What can happen if I go to court? How can I prepare?

  • The prosecutor will help you prepare. You will likely be questioned in depth on uncomfortable topics.

“The reality of it is that the defendant’s right to confrontation makes it so that they’re able to ask about a lot of things that are tough for victims, such as alcohol use. It may be drug use. There are things we can do to try to limit that.

“I always try to work with victims before they testify to explain the court process and discuss what questions they may be asked while testifying, as well as to make sure that the victim has a support system in place before, during and after their testimony — whether that is family, friends, or an advocate.”

— Jenna Gruenstein, Assistant Attorney General, Office of Special Prosecutions

I’m interested in talking to an ADN or ProPublica journalist. What should I keep in mind?

Some survivors have told us that telling their stories publicly has been cathartic. If you’d like to share your experience with us, you can start with this questionnaire. We won’t tell every story, but we do read what you submit. We take your privacy very seriously.

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