To ensure justice and create a more compassionate and streamlined response, service providers intervene in a way that speaks to the context of each victim's circumstance and respects the unique roles of the different professionals involved in responding to sexual assault. Union County has developed a team approach with just those goals in mind. This multidisciplinary team, called a SART (sexual assault response team), partners together to provide interagency, coordinated responses that make victims' needs a priority, hold offenders accountable, and promote public safety.
The Union County SART helps diminish the short- and long-term impacts of trauma by mobilizing interdisciplinary expertise to assess and address victims' needs from the acute stage to recovery. The cooperative partnerships formed by SARTs can validate victims' concerns, inform victims of available options for addressing their concerns, and improve service accessibility for diverse populations. The team model helps improve cross-discipline communication and enable victims to provide feedback on their cases.
When a person is harmed by a criminal act, the agencies that make up the criminal and juvenile justice systems have a moral and legal obligation to respond. It is their responsibility not only to seek swift justice for victims, but to ease their suffering in a time of great need.
Sexual assault trauma is a physical and emotional violation that may result in feelings of intense fear, powerlessness, and hopelessness. Such events can be traumatic not because they are rare, but because they overwhelm the internal resources that give individuals a sense of control, connection, and meaning.
Members of the Union County SART recognize the powerful domino effect sexual assault may have on victims' physical, social, emotional, spiritual, and economic lives and must integrate victim-centered approaches in their response.
Rape survivors represent the largest non-combat group of individuals with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When rape victims disclose their assaults they often risk disbelief, scorn, shame, punishment, and refusals of help, and many are concerned about the following:
Due to these fears, the pain of sexual violation is extremely isolating. Victims often question themselves and distrust the world around them. SARTs need to understand the complex issues that victims face to provide them with compassionate and emotionally supportive care.
Many victims describe the aftermath of sexual assault as an "emotional tattoo" that remains ever before them, much like a tattoo that is fixed just below the surface of the skin. Immediately following a sexual assault, many victims question whether the assault really happened or why it happened to them. The shock of sexual assault is often followed by additional questions that victims may or may not articulate out loud, such as
Trauma has both objective and subjective aspects. It is useful to think of all trauma symptoms as adaptations. Symptoms represent a victims' attempt to cope the best way they can with overwhelming feelings. Severe trauma can have a major impact on the course of victims' lives. For example, according to the National Women's Study, rape victims are 4.1 times more likely than non-crime victims to have contemplated suicide and 13 times more likely to attempt suicide. 5 Sexual assault victims may frequently see the world as an unsafe place, distrust others, have difficulty with decisionmaking, isolate themselves, and harm themselves.
Victims often fear responses from friends, family, colleagues, the public, and criminal justice providers. For example, according to one victim, "When the police officer responded to my 9-1-1 call and transported me to the hospital for a medical forensic exam, my neighbors were standing outside. I was sure they thought I had been arrested. Then, when I returned to work and was on the elevator with people I knew—I felt like I had a scarlet ‘R' in the middle of my forehead. I felt branded by my assault and was confident that my scarlet R was all they saw."
In addition to feeling stigmatized, victims frequently struggle with personal questions such as—
Victim responses to sexual assault are uniquely individual and extremely varied. Some of the responses may include continued contact with perpetrators, delayed responses, flat affects (severely reduced emotional expressiveness), or use of humor. Although lay people (e.g., jurors) may perceive these responses as counterintuitive, they are very common responses to trauma.
The physical responses to extreme stress can lead to hyperarousal and anxiety. When fight-or-flight instincts take over, hormones trigger a state of readiness to overcome threats to personal safety. This response is triggered without conscious thought because it bypasses the cortex (the brain's center of higher functioning) and links directly into the brain's "fear center." When victims receive signals from this center, the information instantly triggers a fight-or-flight response.
Victims of sexual assault may have a powerful ability to activate their brain's fear centers due to a network of neurons that are triggered when any of the cues present during the assault present themselves again. A trigger is something that reminds victims of the assault.Triggers may be auditory, visual, tactile, and/or olfactory links to something related to the assault. For example, triggers might be a man's voice, a look of disgust by a family member, the smell of cologne, the sight of a beard, an unwanted touch, or hearing about someone sexually assaulted on the news or at the movies.
At the sound, touch, or sight of those cues, victims can experience the same surge of neurochemicals that were triggered during the actual assault. Their hearts may begin to race, their blood pressure may spike, and their breathing could accelerate. They may find themselves wanting to flee from a health care facility or freeze in terror because law enforcement or a forensic examiner asks them specific details about the assault. These fear reactions are not conscious choices, nor overreactions. They are an automatic response triggered by traumatic memories.
The powerful neurochemicals that trigger the fight-or-flight response have far-reaching effects, including dramatic effects on the manner in which memories are recalled. Often, a traumatized person cannot generate the kind of narrative memory that normally follows an important experience. Their memories are often fragmented, out of sequence, and filled with gaps. They may recall very specific details from particular aspects of the assault and little or nothing about other aspects. The fact that a traumatized person recalls a detail that they did not remember earlier is not evidence of fabrication. Rather, it demonstrates a characteristic way in which traumatic memories are stored and recalled.
Victims participating in the civil or criminal justice process continuously recount their traumas, appear in the courtroom where their assailants sit, and answer a multitude of intrusive personal questions. These situations can be the equivalent of activating a chemical time bomb in the victim's brain.