Jump to a section on this page
What You Need to Know
Sexual violence is never the victim's fault. It doesn't matter where you were, the time of day, what you were wearing, or if you were drinking – sex without consent is rape. Most sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. Rape is a crime of power and control.
Any form of sexual violence can be a traumatic experience. It will be important for you to address emotional trauma in addition to any physical injuries resulting from an assault. Although the following information may answer many questions you may have, please utilize the free and confidential services of an advocate from the rape crisis center in your area by calling 1-800-656-HOPE.
Victim Support and Advocacy
Victim support and advocacy may be needed at many different stages, from immediately after the crime occurs to days, weeks, or even months or years later.
A victim advocate from a local rape crisis center can provide free and confidential information, referrals and emotional support after a sexual assault. These services include helping you identify any immediate concerns related to your safety and medical care, as well as support at the hospital during a forensic medical exam and throughout any criminal justice proceedings. An advocate's role is to provide information (on such issues as preserving evidence, reporting options, the forensic medical examinations, HIV risk, etc.) so that you can make informed decisions and to support you in those decisions. Additionally, an advocate can connect you with other services, including support groups and supportive resources for close friends and family members.1
Again, these services are free and confidential and can be accessed 24/7.
Safety planning is a thoughtful, deliberate process in which an advocate and a victim together create a plan to enhance safety for the victim. Each victim's circumstances, safety needs and concerns are unique.
If you feel that you are in imminent danger:
- Call 911. Never feel embarrassed or hesitant to call for help.
- If you are already in your vehicle, drive to the nearest police station. Tell them of your immediate or pending safety concerns for yourself or your family.
If you feel unsafe and are not in imminent danger:
- Talk with an advocate to develop a plan of action to address your immediate safety needs. The plan should identify: specific steps you can take to address your immediate safety concerns; supportive persons who can help with safety and their roles in the process; specific safety strategies that may prove difficult to achieve and accommodations needed to reduce or eliminate these barriers; any essential items you may need if you have to flee your current location; and referrals to community resources to meet any urgent needs.
- If needed, implement and discuss the safety plan until you feel comfortable with it. Every individual is different. Some victims feel safe remaining in their own homes after an assault. Others need to change locks; still others feel best relocating. Students may want to change their schedules. Victims assaulted by strangers may want security devices. Only you can identify what will help you feel safe.
- A traumatic event is one in which an individual experiences, witnesses or is confronted with actual or threatened death, serious injury or a threat to their physical wellbeing.2 Emotional trauma—caused by events such as sexual and physical violence, emotional abuse or neglect, natural disasters, serious accidents and acts of war and terrorism—can shatter an individual's sense of security. However, any situation that leaves a person overwhelmed, frightened and feeling alone can be traumatic.3 It is not the objective facts that determine whether an event is traumatic, but a person's subjective emotional experience of the event.4
- The following are examples of factors that may influence whether a person's reactions to a stressful event are traumatic5: severity and frequency of the event; personal history; individual coping skills, values and beliefs; and the level of support from family, friends and/or professionals.
- Traumatic reactions may include physical, emotional and cognitive symptoms. Additional symptoms—intrusive re-experiencing of the trauma, emotional numbing and avoidance, and arousal (e.g., hyper-vigilance and overreactions)—are key indicators of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD symptoms specific to survivors of sexual violence are also known as rape trauma syndrome.
- Rape crisis center advocates can help victims understand how sexual violence can cause traumatic reactions and how trauma can affect them. Rape crisis centers provide free and confidential counseling to victims – whether it is immediately following the assault or years later. (See the Crisis Centers section of this website for a listing of the rape crisis centers in West Virginia.) It is important that you address your emotional needs just as you would any physical injuries.
If you were physically injured from the assault, seek medical assistance. Sometimes injuries are not visible, so it is best to seek treatment if you are unsure. While the risk of pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDs from a sexual assault is low, these are major concerns that a health care professional can help you address. You may be eligible for compensation for any medical expenses incurred if the assault is reported to law enforcement within 72 hours after it occurred. (See Crime Victim Compensation Fund information below.)
Forensic Medical Exam
In addition to possibly requiring medical attention for injuries and addressing other health concerns after a sexual assault, there may be evidence on your body that could be collected and information that could be gathered about the assault if you are considering reporting the assault to law enforcement. Since your body is the actual crime scene and evidence is time-sensitive, it may only be present until you bathe, wash and/or urinate.
The purpose of the sexual assault forensic medical exam is to assess your health care needs and to collect evidence for potential use during case investigation and prosecution.6
An examination by a health care provider is still recommended even if:
- 1. there are no visible injuries as a result of the assault
- 2. the victim does not wish to have evidence collected, or
- 3. the assault was not recent.
In West Virginia there is no statute of limitations on sexual assault – meaning that 5, 10, or even 50 years later a case could be prosecuted. But there is a limit on how long evidence may remain on the body. Today you may feel that you don't want to get your offender in trouble, that it was somehow your fault (but remember the victim is never at fault!), that you just want to get on with your life and therefore do not want to have a forensic medical exam. However, you may feel differently next week or even next year. In West Virginia, you can have a forensic medical exam without reporting the assault to law enforcement (as long as you are not a minor or an adult who has been deemed by the courts as incapacitated). Evidence will be collected and stored, giving you additional time to consider your options. Advocates and law enforcement officers can assist you if you later decide to initiate a criminal investigation of the assault.
Sex crime evidence collection kits collected as part of investigations will be sent to the West Virginia State Police Forensic Lab for processing.
Sex crime evidence collection kits collected from victims who choose not to report the assault to law enforcement will be sent to Marshall University Forensic Science Center, where the collected evidence will be stored for potential future use. It is important to note that if liquid samples were collected as a part of the toxicology kit (blood and urine), the samples will have a limited life span and will degrade over time. All samples collected as a part of the rest of the examination (swabs, etc) will have an unlimited lifespan if collected and dried properly.
Should the decision be made later to initiate an investigation in a non-reported case, you would need to contact law enforcement and provide the kit tracking number for law enforcement to be able to secure the sex crime evidence collection kit from MUFSC.
If an investigation has not been initiated within 18 months from its time of collection, the evidence collection kit will be categorized as "non-active." Samples collected as part of the forensic medical examination in "non-active" kits may be used for training purposes once all identifying information has been removed. After the 18 month time period, if the "non-active" sex crime evidence collection kit has not been used for training purposes, a victim can still request that an investigation be initiated. There is no statute of limitations on reporting a sexual assault in West Virginia.
The exam usually should take place at a licensed medical facility (e.g., hospital Emergency Department) within about 96 hours of the assault and would include:
- Obtaining information about your pertinent health history and the crime.
- Conducting a physical examination (not a routine physical examination) to look for injuries and findings.
- Collecting and preserving all evidence and documenting any findings.
- Collecting urine and blood samples for analysis in cases in which drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA) is suspected.
- Treating or referring you for any medical treatment.
- Offering you prophylactic medications for the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and other care needed as a result of the crime.
- Providing you with referrals for medical and psychological care and support.7
There is no cost for a forensic medical exam. Licensed medical facilities only charge for any medical treatment you may receive. (See the Forensic Medical Examination section of the website for additional information.)
Forensic nurses (including Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners or SANEs) as well as law enforcement officers are specially trained in collecting evidence. Depending on what occurred during the assault, the DNA of your offender might be obtained from a variety of sources, from body hair, saliva, bite marks, semen or vaginal discharge, debris under your fingernails, etc.
To preserve evidence, it is best to go to the hospital in the clothing you were wearing at the time of the assault and refrain from bathing, brushing your teeth, washing your hands, and urinating/defecating.
If you believed that you were drugged, the collection of the first voided urine should be collected and taken with you to the hospital. Traces of the drug may remain in your blood or urine. (See the Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault section of the website for additional information.) Take a change of clothing with you in case your clothes are kept to test for DNA evidence.
Reporting a Sexual Assault
Reporting a sexual assault to law enforcement initiates a criminal investigation. The local prosecuting attorney makes the final decision regarding what charges, if any, to bring against an offender.
There is no statute of limitations on reporting sexual assault in West Virginia. Although reports can be made at any time, evidence may be destroyed or deteriorate over time. Victims who have had a forensic medical exam but did not initially report the assault to law enforcement may still be able to initiate an investigation months or years later (see above section on the Forensic Medical Exam) by contacting law enforcement. But to qualify for payment of any medical or other expenses incurred, the assault usually needs to have been reported to law enforcement within 72 hours. (See section below on Crime Victims Compensation Fund.)
Crime Victims Compensation Fund
The West Virginia Crime Victims Compensation Fund provides compensation to victims of crime who have suffered personal injury and have incurred out-of-pocket losses as a result of a criminal act.
West Virginia residents are eligible to file a claim with the Crime Victims Compensation Fund if they are: victims of a crime that caused personal injury and out-of-pocket losses; dependents of a deceased victim of a crime; victims of terrorism overseas; or victims of crime in another state that does not have a compensation program. To be eligible, the crime must be reported to law enforcement within 72 hours (with possible exceptions). The victim must document expenses from the injury inflicted by the crime and fully cooperate with law enforcement. A claim must be filed within two years.
To file a claim, an application must be completed and submitted to the Crime Victims Compensation Fund. There is no fee to file and an attorney is not required. Victim advocates at rape crisis centers are trained to assist victims in filing claims.
Once a claim has been filed, a claim investigator reviews the case, creates a Finding of Fact and Recommendation (FFR) and sends a copy to the victim. The victim may file a response to the FFR within 30 days. A judge then reviews the FFR, all case documents and the victim's response, if any, and makes a decision. A copy of the decision is sent to the victim. If the victim or claim investigator disagrees with the decision, they have 30 days to file an appeal. The case will then be transferred to another judge and the victim has 21 days to request a hearing. At the hearing, the victim and other parties may have the opportunity to testify and initial findings are discussed. The court then determines if there is sufficient evidence to award the victim benefits or if the claim will be denied.
Sexual assault victims can have a forensic medical exam conducted without immediately reporting the crime to law enforcement. If they choose not to report, they will probably not be eligible for compensation through the Crime Victims Compensation Fund. Because there is no statute of limitations on sexual assault, they can later report the crime to law enforcement. If they then file a claim and a judge finds that the victim can provide good cause as to why there was a delay in reporting past the 72 hour eligibility time period, the claim could be approved. The determination is left to the discretion of the judge under the parameters of the state statute.8
Supporting Victims – How Families and Friends Can Help
Sexual assault affects not only the victim, but also family and friends. Family members and friends often struggle to help their loved one deal with the effects of the assault because of their own struggle with what has happened.
It is critical for victims that the people they talk to about the assault show that they believe them. Provide comfort and support. Listen without judging; try not to interrupt or ask a lot of questions. Let them make the decisions, and be supportive of those decisions. Without the victim's permission, do not tell others what happened. Remind them that it was not their fault.
Let them know that whatever they did to prevent further harm was the right thing to do. Encourage them to talk about the assault(s) with an advocate, mental health professional or someone they trust. Remember that healing takes time; be patient and supportive for as long as it takes.
1OVCTTAC, "Resource Manual", 2007 National Victim Assistance Academy, Track 1, Foundation-Level Training.
2-5 For further information regarding Emotional Trauma, please review section B8. of the WV S.A.F.E. Training and Collaboration Toolkit.
6For further information regarding the Sexual Assault Forensic Medical Examination, please review section B11. of the WV S.A.F.E. Training and Collaboration Toolkit.
7 K. Littel, 2001, "Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) Programs: Improving the Community Response to Sexual Assault Victims," Washington, DC: Office for Victims of Crime, U.S. Department of Justice.
8 For further information regarding the WV Crime Victims Compensation Fund, please review section B7. of the WV S.A.F.E. Training and Collaboration Toolkit.