Sexual Assault Treatment Unit: "I thought mine was too trivial for people to care."

Those were the words of one woman to Margo Noonan, head of the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit at Cork's South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital. It is a situation she and staff at the Cork and other SATUs are hoping to change, writes Social Affairs Correspondent Noel Baker.

Sexual Assault Treatment Unit:

Those were the words of one woman to Margo Noonan, head of the Sexual Assault Treatment Unit at Cork's South Infirmary-Victoria University Hospital. It is a situation she and staff at the Cork and other SATUs are hoping to change, writes Social Affairs Correspondent Noel Baker.

"We are the kind of service that, unless you need us, you don't know about us," she said. While national data on SATU presentations is likely to be published in the coming weeks, information from the Cork SATU shows 144 new cases last year. Given the level of under-reporting around rape and sexual assault, that is unlikely to be anywhere near the real figure, she said, while data shows that just half of those presentations were reported to gardaí, although others may have followed.

Ms Noonan is Candidate Advanced Nurse Practioner in Sexual Assault Forensic Examination at the SATU, which deals with anyone over the age of 14 and is a free and confidential service to anyone of any gender who has experienced rape or sexual assault. She stressed there was no time limit for reporting rape and that the SATU offered a range of follow-up services, something she also emphasised while speaking at a conference held in Cork City Hall two weeks ago.

"Outside Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm, we do not have a dedicated forensic medical service for children," she said, adding that this "in this day and age is a horrendous thing to say".

Referring to the Barnahus, Onehouse Galway pilot project launched last year, which is a multiagency integrated service designed to respond to the needs of children who have experienced sexual abuse, and to assist their families, Ms Noonan said she hoped that in the next year or so a similar initiative would be launched in Cork.

"It is an issue we need to look after," she said.

Ms Noonan told the conference that when it came to children, forensics ideally needed to be taken within 24 to 48 hours and time was "of the essence".

At the same conference in February, Maeve O'Brien, Interim programme lead for the HSE's Sexual Health and Crisis Pregnancy Programme, said a number of initiatives are being developed, including work with Spun Out on how to address the issues of sex and consent with young people aged from 12 years old, as well as supports for parents.

One person attending the conference held recently at Cork City Hall identified herself as a Social Personal Health and Education teacher at a Cork secondary school, said the resources available to SPHE teachers are "really, really old" when it comes to sex education.

She said the resources available at SPHE.ie were outdated and that the 'Busy Bodies' book currently in use was not suitable and was more primary school level than secondary school level, adding that even first years found it patronising.

She also referred to a video on sphe.ie produced by Cura, and an old BBC DVD, and said that the area was "chronically under-resourced".

"All of these resources are wholly inappropriate for my students," she said.

Ms O'Brien said the Department of Education has responsibility in that area and that the HSE is working with the Department in trying to develop resources, while a recent review of the curriculum in this area was currently with the Minister for Education.

Another woman attending the conference, from a youth service in Mallow, said the lack of education among the children she was dealing with when it came to issues such as sex and porn was acute and "something needs to change".

"We see kids every day coming into us struggling with their sexual health," she said.

What happens when you attend a Sexual Assault Treatment Unit?

When you attend the SATU, you will be brought to the examination suite where you will meet a forensic clinical examiner; this may be a doctor, a midwife or a nurse and an assisting nurse. The forensic clinical examiner will carry out a forensic clinical examination. This is a special type of exam which is carried out to get evidence following a sexual assault or rape.

A member of the Gardaí will also be present. A Garda must be there for legal reasons if you are having a forensic examination. They are not present if you are not reporting the crime to them. The procedure and examination will be explained to you by the forensic clinical examiner and you (or your parent or guardian) will be asked to sign a consent form.

You will be asked some general health questions as well as specific questions relating to what happened. You will be asked to outline your memory of events. All the staff in the unit appreciate that it may be difficult for you to give all these details again, but it is important that the exact nature of events is known to ensure that appropriate physical checks can be done, necessary treatment can be administered and forensic samples can be taken.

A gown will be provided for examination and your clothes may be taken by the Gardaí. You will usually be asked to provide a urine sample and blood tests.

The forensic examination will then be performed and any injuries will be documented. Relevant samples will be taken, such as hair and nails and swabs from intimate examination (vagina or penis). Depending on the type of assault, it may also be necessary to examine the back passage and swabs will usually be taken from this area too.

Forensic samples can be taken up to seven days after a rape or sexual assault, but all SATUs also provide care for patients who present after seven days by documenting and treating injuries, helping you deal with any worries you may have, providing you with preventative treatment (eg for sexually transmitted infections), performing a general health check and organising follow-up care if needed.

If you change your mind once you are at the SATU, you can choose not to go ahead with the exam, you can stop the exam at any time and the staff will always respect and support your wishes.

After the examination, you will be given whatever additional care you need eg treatment of minor injuries, preventative treatment for sexually transmitted infections and emergency contraception. You will also be given details of follow-up appointments and useful contact information.

For more information on SATU, visit their website.

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