Washburn County sexual assault response team strengthening response to sexual violence survivors

Members of the Washburn County sexual assault response team -photo submitted

(Trigger warning: This content may trigger sexual assault survivors.)

Sexual assault is a very complex and sensitive issue. Historically, this topic has been one to be “shoved under the rug,” which forces survivors to be silenced about their experience. However, if we want to put an end to sexual assault, we must start talking about it. April is nationally recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time when we highlight the issue of sexual assault within our community.

One way Washburn County is addressing and responding to sexual assault is through the coordinating efforts of the Washburn County Sexual Assault Response Team. The Washburn County SART is a team that is comprised of the Washburn County district attorney, county victim/witness coordinator, Embrace, Spooner Health, Washburn County Sheriff’s Department and the four police departments in the county including Spooner, Shell Lake, Birchwood and Minong.

Four law enforcement agencies are part of the SART team. Those pictured are holding blue ribbons showing their support of sexual violence survivors. -photo submitted

The team meets every other month to talk through agency protocols, current cases, ways to strengthen community response to support survivors of sexual assault and the processing of sexual assault cases through the criminal justice system.

An ongoing discussion for the team is how to sensitively respond to survivors of sexual assault who request a sexual assault nurse exam. A SANE exam is a medical forensic exam that can be conducted up to 120 hours after an assault. The exam is performed by a registered nurse or nurse practitioner who has been specially trained to collect any evidence that can be used during prosecution.

Another piece of the exam is to test and treat the victim for any medical issues that may have resulted from the assault, such as sexually transmitted infections. One thing most people do not know is that if they choose to seek medical treatment and/or have a SANE that does not mean they are required to formally report or participate in a law enforcement investigation.

The Washburn County SART is developing a protocol to help ensure a sexual assault survivor is offered all their options in a sensitive and trauma informed manner. Embrace has resources available for survivors which include a new pair of comfortable clothing, in case their clothing is collected as evidence and personal hygiene products for after the exam, such as cleansing wipes, toothbrush/toothpaste, etc. With this newly formed group we hope to see improvements to the response of sexual assault cases in the county such as:

  • Better, more victim-centered care for survivors in the acute stage.
  • An increase in the number of survivors coming forward for help.
  • More requests for advocacy services by survivors after the acute stage.
  • More medical and mental health follow-up services accessed by survivors after the acute response.
  • Better quality of evidence collection and a more consistent use of evidence and expert witness testimony during prosecution.
  • An increased percentage of survivors reporting their assault to law enforcement.
  • Survivors expressing greater satisfaction with the acute care they received from medical personnel and law enforcement, as well as a greater confidence in the legal system’s ability to achieve a form of justice for them.
  • More law enforcement cases referred to the district attorney for review.
  • More cases ending in findings of guilty.

As a society, we continue to focus on the credibility of survivors instead of the accountability of those accused of the crimes. It seems clear why rape is the most under reported crime in America—as a field, there is still much to be done in order to provide a consistently skilled, appropriate, compassionate and professional response to survivors. The creation of the Washburn County SART is the first step to achieving a better approach to the problem of sexual assault in our community.

Our words shape the world around us. How we talk about sexual violence matters. When we reflect on and change how we think and talk about the issue of sexual violence and consent, we can create a culture of respect, equality and safety in our community. To learn more about Embrace and how you can “embrace your voice” during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, please visit www.embracewi.org or check out our Facebook page. 24/7 help or text line: 715.532.6976.