Forensic evidence deteriorates quickly — often within a week if the victim washes or showers. Therefore, international best practice advocates collection and secure storage of samples as soon as possible after the incident.
Until now, the alleged victims had to decide very quickly whether they would report the matter to gardaí or not. That was because, if they did, the sample taken by the country’s six sexual assault treatment units (SATUs) needed to be handed over to gardaí so it could be securely stored by the Garda Forensics Unit in Phoenix Park in Dublin.
Now, however, thanks to funding from the Department of Justice and the National Office for the Prevention of Domestic, Sexual and Gender-based Violence, SATUs have the technology to store the evidence themselves for up to 12 months. The Medical Independent reported this week that the storage facility has now been established.
The Rape Crisis Network Ireland (RCNI), among others, had been campaigning for such a facility for a number of years. “We are delighted that it is finally happening,” said Clíona Saidléar of RCNI. “The victim does not have to make that decision there and then. It takes the pressure off them and gives them reflection time.”
She said SATUs have always been able to give psychological and medical support to victims, but now they could also give support around forensics.
The development has not happened overnight. While funding was secured more than a year ago, a number of factors needed to be put in place, not least secure storage and the monitoring of the samples, ensuring, for example, they could be stored at the correct temperature.
Dr Maeve Eogan, clinical director of the National SATU Services, confirmed since the storage option was put in place in July a “number” of patients had availed of it nationwide.
She said the best option for a victim of sex crimes was to report it immediately so that investigating officers could also gather other forms of evidence such as CCTV or scenes of crime material.
In 2015, there were 685 attendances at the six SATUs in Dublin, Cork, Waterford, Mullingar, Galway and Letterkenny. That was an increase of 57 cases nationally from 2014. Of those, 540, or 78.8%, of the patients reported the incident to gardaí. The majority attended the SATU within 72 hours of the incident.
The majority of the victims, 631, were women and the mean age was 25 — the youngest victim was 13, the eldest over 80 years of age.
SATU provides medical treatment to the victims and last year, 276, or 64.1%, of the women who presented within the timeframe for emergency contraception received it. SATU said there were a range of reasons why it may not have been provided, such as previously receiving it from a GP or pharmacy.
All units offer chlamydia prevention medication, Hepatitis B vaccination and risk assessment for HIV treatment. Last year 459 victims took chlamydia medication, 419 (61.2%) began a Hepatitis B immunisation programme and 57 (8.3%) patients started treatment for post-exposure to HIV.