by Naomi Wright & Anne P. DePrince
Imagine you work in victim services. Following a sexual assault, a woman goes to your office building to meet with you. Maybe for an interview that is part of a criminal investigation. Maybe to access healthcare. Regardless of the reason, keep imagining those first few moments when your services start. You can probably call to mind the look and feel of the room where your trauma-informed, victim-centered exam or interview begins.
For the woman, though, victim services started when she walked into the waiting room. Whether you were there or not.
We asked more than 200 women who were sexually assaulted in the last year (the majority of whom had been raped) about their victim service experiences, including how to improve responses. The women with whom we spoke were diverse with respect to age, ethnic/racial background, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. In line with research nationally (Littel, 2001), many women told us that they spent time in public waiting rooms to seek health and police services after the sexual assault.
Across this diverse group of women, one thing was clear: Improving victim services begins in the waiting room.
Seventy women — about one third of all the women with whom we spoke — went to a police station after the sexual assault, typically for a scheduled interview with the detective assigned to the case. When asked about the waiting area, the majority recalled negative experiences. Women described feeling intimated or as if they had done something wrong. Some women found themselves wondering if the offender might walk in. Others were uncomfortable sitting with men who might be sexual offenders (a concern reinforced by signs that gave information about sex offender registration). The physical features in the waiting rooms set a cold tone during the wait, exacerbating women’s feelings of stress as they were sometimes required to fill out forms or draft a written report in this public space.
I had to sit right next to [a] place for sex offenders, which was uncomfortable.
When women indicated positive experiences waiting in police stations, there was a welcoming, more private space for them, such as a “comfort room full of stuffed animals and puzzles.” Women especially appreciated not having to wait with other people, such as when they were met upon arrival by an officer or advocate and escorted to a private space.
More than half of women with whom we spoke went to a hospital or health clinic after the sexual assault. Women described frequently waiting to be seen by medical staff in full or busy public waiting areas. While other patients may not have known why women were there, women described feeling embarrassed, self-conscious, and even claustrophobic. Sometimes the check-in procedures exacerbated embarrassment, such as when asking for a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) exam at the front desk, surrounded by a crowded room. For other women, the general commotion in the waiting area led to feeling unsafe, isolated (“no one was there for me”), and scared.
The room was big and open with lots of people and kids running around; I really didn’t want to be there because I was traumatized and embarrassed. I felt like all eyes were on me.
In contrast, women felt more positively toward their experience waiting for medical services when they were met by a sexual assault specialist immediately or allowed to wait in a private room away from the public waiting area. For example, one woman said “I sat in this room called a family room, it was fine, and they brought me snacks.” Other women waited in the general waiting room and felt positively toward their experience, describing a “clean and safe” environment, sometimes with a responding officer staying with them while they waited.
Many women will find themselves in public waiting rooms while seeking victim services. Police station and medical waiting rooms may be women’s first encounters with formal support services. For some women, waiting room experiences are quick, organized, and welcoming; for other women, waiting rooms are cold, uncomfortable, or frightening.
Women’s observations of the waiting areas align with other things we’ve learned from the Women’s Health Project about factors — big and small — that can affect women’s engagement with victim services. For example, positive reactions from community-based victim service providers to women’s sexual assault disclosures predict whether or not women report to law enforcement (DePrince, Wright, Gagnon, Srinivas, & Labus, in press).
Women made clear that their experiences in hospital or police station waiting rooms set the tone for their interaction with that agency. While the kinds of changes that systems need to make to be responsive to sexual assault survivors are sometimes fundamental or expensive, here we have practical, actionable advice from women on how to better engage them in the aftermath of sexual assault. In particular, their observations point to revisiting waiting procedures to ensure:
- welcoming, organized, and victim-centered waiting spaces without exposure to offenders;
- privacy when possible;
- fast connection to victim advocates or sexual assault specialists who can help them navigate through the appointment.
Modest changes to waiting procedures promise to improve victim services, facilitating women’s access to justice and healing.
This research was funded by the National Institute of Justice [Grant #2012-W9-BX-049]. The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views or the official position of the National Institute of Justice or any other organization.
Thank you to our community partners who made this research possible, particularly Denver’s Sexual Assault Interagency Council.
DePrince, A. P., Wright, N.M., Gagnon, K.L., Srinivas, T., Labus, J. (in press). Social reactions and women’s decisions to report sexual assault to law enforcement. Violence Against Women.
Littel, K. (2001). Sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) programs: Improving the community response to sexual assault victims. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office for Victims of Crime.