Special care, treatment available for sexual assault victims
“We want every victim of sexual assault to receive health care. We encourage them. But it’s up to that victim to decide,” said Michele Barber, the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention medical management program coordinator for the Army’s Western Regional Medical Command.
Barber’s area of responsibility includes much of the western United States, which she manages from WRMC headquarters at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. But she said training and care provided by hospital staffs and counselors is standard across the Army, not only for Soldiers, but for family members and all Department of Defense beneficiaries.
Furthermore, to get that care and treatment, victims do not need to disclose to their command that they are receiving it and medical providers and counselors will keep all information confidential if the Soldier chooses to make a restricted report.
Restricted reporting means no criminal investigation or legal proceedings, she said, emphasizing that even though a victim might decide not to report the assault to law enforcement, he or she can still receive medical care and counseling 24/7 -- and Barber encourages Soldiers to do so. Finding Help
Victims find medical care through various routes. Sometimes the command is aware of the assault, she said, and they refer the victim. Other times, the victim will seek help in the emergency room or through a primary care provider. Often, their unit sexual assault response coordinator will bring them in and other times victims will call a toll-free number provided by their unit.
The first thing the medical staff will do, Barber said, is ensure their immediate injuries and medical needs are met.
Then, the medical provider will contact the sexual assault care provider and the sexual assault clinical coordinator.
The care provider is either a nurse practitioner, a physician assistant or a doctor with specialized training for care of sexual assault victims. The clinical coordinator is often a social worker or a nurse with special training who will provide near- and long-term care coordination.
That means that “there’s a continuum of care from the time they enter the medical treatment facility until the time they no longer need any kind of medical or behavioral health services,” Barber said. Never too late
Victims are often hesitant to seek any type of care or help, Barber said. They might be frightened or scared or have other reasons.
A day, a week, a month or a year may go by without a victim seeking treatment, but it’s never too late, she said. The emotional aspect of care may be required long after the physical aspect.
Even a sexual assault medical forensic exam can be administered after some time has elapsed following the assault and even after the victim has taken a shower, Barber said, adding that for this exam to be more effective, sooner is better.
Only part of that exam is for DNA evidence, she continued. The exam also documents and treats injuries and infections and gets a history from the victim to better understand what happened. This helps provide an appropriate plan of care based on the victim’s needs.
Follow-up exams provide results of lab tests, enable additional treatments needed for sexually transmitted infections, and monitor the healing of any injuries the victim may have sustained.
The entire process is performed by medical providers with special training to understand the needs of sexual assault victims. Following the medical treatment phase and often during that phase, the victim will be offered behavioral health counseling by specially trained health-care providers.
This follow- on care is especially important “because often the victim is traumatized,” Barber said. She added, however, it’s up to the victim to decide.
“We use evidence-based therapies for behavioral health care,” she said. “Our providers routinely receive training on the most effective techniques, such as cognitive processing therapy for those experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Barber added that care and treatment is tailored to the unique needs and requirements of the victim.
If the victim is separating from the Army, Barber said “we coordinate with the (Department of Veterans Affairs) to ensure there’s a warm handoff from that Army behavioral healthcare provider to the VA.”
The VA has a program specific to military sexual trauma including therapists, in-patient treatment and coordinators.