Five critical steps victims of sexual assault should take after the crime

Navigating what to do after being raped or sexually assaulted can be daunting, but survivors should receive medical attention as soon as possible – preferably from a specially trained sexual assault nurse examiner, also known as a SANE.

Acting quickly is important, so we’ve pulled together some suggestions for what to do, how to find the nearest SANE and what to expect during and after a forensic exam.

Remember that having an exam does not mean you have to report the assault to police – that’s your call in most cases – but it will make it possible to take that action, even if you decide to do so later.

What should you do if you have been raped?

An example of a rape kit that is sent to crime labs for testing.
An example of a rape kit that is sent to crime labs for testing.

Seek medical attention as soon as possible. Receiving care from a sexual assault nurse examiner is ideal. They can conduct a sexual assault forensic exam, which can result in more thorough evidence for law enforcement and better health outcomes.

More: When sex assault survivors seek critical care, many US hospitals are ill-equipped

If possible, try not to change clothes, bathe/shower, comb your hair, use the bathroom, smoke, or eat/drink, as these things may destroy evidence of the assault. If you have done any of these, however, you can and should still have a forensic exam performed.

Bring a change of clothes to wear after the exam. If you’ve already changed clothes, bring what you were wearing during the assault to the exam in a bag.

How can you find a forensic nurse?

While there is no comprehensive national search tool for locating forensic nurses, also known as SANE, here are some resources for finding help:

◾ The International Association of Forensic Nurses’ national program database.

◾ Your state forensic nurse database, if available.

◾ A local sexual assault service provider.

Because of high program turnover, call the facility before arriving to make sure it still offers sexual assault nurse examiner services.

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What happens during a forensic exam?

Forensic exams are patient-centered, so you can choose to stop, pause, or skip a step at any time. You can also have an advocate present throughout. The exam may take a few hours, depending on various factors. The general process is:

Immediate care of any urgent injuries.

◾ A run-through of your medical history.

◾ A full body examination that may include internal examinations, blood/urine/saliva/hair samples, swabs of body surface areas, and written and photographic documentation of your injuries.

Follow-up care such as tests for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The sexual assault nurse examiner may want to schedule a follow-up exam. They can also refer you to local advocacy and mental health resources, and inform you of your reporting options.

What are your rights as a sexual assault survivor to request appropriate care?

Under the federal Survivors’ Bill of Rights, you cannot be prevented from receiving a forensic exam. You have the right to an exam regardless of whether you report to or cooperate with law enforcement.

When is law enforcement involved?

You do not have to report a crime to the police to receive a forensic exam. Sexual assault nurse examiners are trained to discuss your reporting options and inform you of relevant state laws.

You can choose to involve the police later or not at all. Besides providing necessary medical care, the exam process gives you a chance to collect evidence should you decide to report at a later time.

Health care workers are mandated to report cases involving patients who are minors, elders, or persons with disabilities. Some states have mandatory reporting requirements that go beyond these criteria, but patients still do not have to cooperate with law enforcement.

Universities may have mandatory reporting policies for school employees under the campus definition of Title IX requirements.

How much will this care cost?

Forensic exams are free nationwide, per federal law.

If you decide to report to law enforcement, you may be eligible for victim compensation. These funds can be used for related expenses like transportation to the hospital, additional medical treatment, mental health counseling and lost wages.

Information about compensation programs in each state, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands can be found here.

Ileana Garnand wrote this story as The Charles Lewis American University fellow at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom focused on investigating systems and circumstances that contribute to inequality in our country.

USA TODAY wants to hear about your experience with sexual assault kits. If you do not see the contact form below, please click this link instead to learn more about the request:

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Victims of sexual assault should follow these five steps after crime