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Campaigning doctor urges rape victims to seek help at pioneering support centre

Dr Olive Buckley, Clinical Director for The Rowan Centre in Antrim, pictured in front of artwork made by survivors of sexual assualts. Picture Mal McCann.

MYTHS and stereotypes around how rape victims should react and "fight back" during an attack must be challenged, a campaigning doctor against sexual violence has warned.

Dr Olive Buckley, who was instrumental in getting Northern Ireland's only sexual assault referral centre off the ground, is also urging victims to contact the service where she pledges her "completely impartial staff" will "listen and believe what victims tell us".

The leading medic, who is herself a victim of sexual violence, heads up the Co Antrim based Rowan Centre, which opened its door five years ago after almost a decade of lobbying work.

The woman at the centre of the high-profile rape trial, in which all four men including Ulster rugby players Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding were cleared of charges earlier this week, travelled to the Rowan the day after the alleged incident where she underwent a forensic examination.

Currently there is no Rape Crisis Centre in the north and, while organisations such as Nexus provide counselling support, the Rowan is a bespoke unit where medical examinations and support services are offered.

The stand alone unit is the only one of its kind in Ireland, providing care for both child abuse victims and adults.

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Previously, rape and sexual assault victims were taken to medical examination suites in police stations, such as Garnerville on the outskirts of Belfast. A police officer had to be present in the room while an internal examination was carried out.

The major difference with the Rowan is that victims can, for the first time, refer themselves in the aftermath of an attack without having to contact police and visit a PSNI station for a forensic medical examination.

Semen samples and other DNA evidence, such as skin, hair and nail samples, can be stored for seven years at the purpose-built centre if an individual changes their mind and wants to pursue criminal charges - with more than 60 samples currently in storage.

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In an interview with the Irish News, Dr Buckley said there were often pre-conceived notions among the public about how a victim should react to an attack - with some assuming the natural instinct should be to scream and "fight back" or flee for help.

"We're keen that victims know that while the court is an adversarial system, where each party has their advocates to present their cases to an impartial judge and jury, our role at the Rowan is to support and believe the victim and to listen to their story," she said.

"As a doctor, if someone tells me they've had a cough for five weeks I don't look at them and say, 'mmm, I think it’s only three weeks'.

"So our job is to believe and support people and help to dispel the myths and stereotypes there are around sexual assault. We explain to them that they may not have reacted to the assault in the way they would have expected – or the way the public would expect.

"Most victims of rape and indeed the general public in general, think if they were under threat or being attacked they would fight back or take flight.

"It is not widely understood that the brain, when faced with danger or an imminent attack, often causes the person actually to flop or freeze to ensure survival. In our experience to flop or freeze is the more usual response.

"We can reassure victims that their brain responded in a normal fashion - we reassure them that their reactions are normal."

Dr Buckley, who is a GP in Carrickfergus and has worked as a forensic medical officer with the PSNI since 2003, was a key member of the working group that fought for the facility.

Known as sexual assault referral centres (SARCS), similar units first opened in London in the 1980s.

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The Rowan is run on a 24 hour on-call basis, but victims must telephone ahead and book an appointment. The first person they will speak to on the phone will be a nurse and they will arrange a time to be seen - which is normally within the hour. There are no waiting lists.

"Back in the day, prior to the Rowan, if someone made a report to the PSNI, a specialist officer from the abuse and rape inquiry team would have met with the victim and the forensic medical officer in a building in the police estate. The emphasis would have been on the collection of forensic evidence," Dr Buckley explained.

"The police officer would have stayed throughout the forensic medical examination. When the examination was over, the victim, in order to access services such as emergency contraception, prevention against HIV, counselling and prevention of sexually transmitted infections, would be required to contact services themselves.

"Quite often, they were vulnerable people and their phone may have been seized as part of the investigation so it was difficult for them to contact services.

"So now with the Rowan, somebody makes a report either through the PSNI or self-referral – and there is an immediate response. When the victim comes to the centre, either by police or self-referral, they will be met by nurse who is their advocate."

Dr Buckley stressed that the victim is "in control" in terms of what form they want the examination to take and the services they want to access, including emergency contraception.

They can opt out of a full forensic examination or they can "self-swab" while observed by a doctor.

"The one thing we will guarantee is that they will leave the Rowan in a better condition physically and mentally than when they come in," she added.

"We would encourage people to come as quickly as possible, ideally within three days of the attack - but forensic evidence can be retrieved in some cases up to seven days. We would also encourage people if they can, not to wash themselves or their clothes."

Dr Buckley said victims are also offered the option of having their injuries recorded with a small non-invasive instrument, which magnifies the area being examined. These images are only ever viewed by doctors and are stored securely.

If a victim has referred themselves they will give what is known as a "first account" of what has happened to the forensic medical officer.

Due to victims being traumatised, they can often have "fragmented memories" and a "relevant history" will only be recorded - with the key information centring on when and what happened.

"Someone who has had the trauma of an acute rape should not be subjected to hours of questions about what has happened," added Dr Buckley.

"Difference in accounts given by the victim at different times after the assault does not mean that the person is not telling the truth."

Due to mandatory reporting laws in Northern Ireland - meaning any specific details about a crime must be reported to police - staff at the Rowan cannot record the name of an alleged attacker or where exactly it happened.

The majority of self-referrals who have attended the unit have subsequently reported it to police within three months of the attack.

"Our job is to provide emotional support and talk to victims. For the next couple of days we discuss with them what type of support they want and we can refer to counselling services if they wish," Dr Buckley said.

"The most important thing is that we listen...and empower them to report."

* The Rowan's freephone helpline: 0800 3894424

* Nexus 028 9032 6803

* Women's Aid 24 hour helpline 0808 802 1414

Factfile

- Based on the site of Antrim Area hospital, the Rowan is a Sexual Assault Referral Centre. It is a regional unit and is jointly funded by the health service and PSNI.

- More than 3,600 people have accessed its services since it opened its doors in 2013. Babies under the age of one in which abuse has been suspected have been brought to the centre for assessment while an elderly woman in her nineties has also attended

- A fifth of victims referred themselves last year while more than 60 per cent were reported through police. Family members and friends of victims affected by sexual violence have also contacted the centre to make reports

- Children and young people under the age of 18 account for a third of referrals

- Most of the victims knew their attacker while a tenth of sex attacks related to the victim's partner

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