As the first professional a victim sees after a sexual assault, first responders have considerable influence on the victim's recovery and case proceeding. More often than not, the first person on the scene is a law enforcement officer. It is important that this individual support and believe the victim when helping them through this traumatic period. Victims report and increase willingness to cooperate if they felt believed and supported by the first responder. Cooperative victims can lead to more cases prosecuted, more perpetrators convicted, and fewer victims in the long term.
First responders should tend to a victim's three major needs:
1) A victim's need to feel safe.
2) A victim's need to express their emotions.
3) A victim's need to know "what comes next."
More details on how to address a victim's three major needs can be found in the U.S. Department of Justice's "First Response to Victims of Crime Guidebook" (pdf, 612 KB).
Dealing with trauma
During an incident, sexual assault or otherwise, the victim experiences "sensory overload" combined with a fixation on some particular aspect of the incident, often at the exclusion of all else. Immediately after the incident, "post-incident amnesia" sets in. This often results in a failure to remember the majority of the information observed in the incident. After a healthy night's sleep there is usually a "memory recovery" in which the victim is able to more clearly recall what happened during an incident. Within 72 hours the final and most complete form of the memory will occur, but it will be partially "reconstructed," and therefore somewhat "stained".
When immediately addressing an incident, there are a series of actions and questions to help the victim:
Other things that will help ease the victim include:
I've addressed the victim's needs, what now?
If the first responder is not a law enforcement official, the first step should be to request the appropriate law enforcement agency to be dispatched to your location. If you are within city limits, notify the local police department. Otherwise, the county sheriff should be notified. Also ask dispatch to notify the victim advocate or the local jurisdiction's advocate depending on location.