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What should I say to a survivor who seeks my assistance?

Times exist in all of our lives when we must face a problem that seems too difficult to face alone. We may feel powerless because of a lack of knowledge of our rights, options, and resources, or simply overwhelmed emotionally by the experience we have undergone.

As a law enforcement officer (with assistance from victim advocates either in your agency or in your community), you can shed light on some of the complicated processes involved in reporting a sexual assault to the police. Survivors need support from someone familiar with them and who has authority within the system. Your support can be critical to survivors.

Ways to Report

Survivors seeking a medical forensic exam may be in crisis and/or will still be feeling the effects of their trauma, therefore it is useful to use a crisis management process when interacting with a survivor. A crisis management process includes the following steps:

Build rapport

Identify the problem

Problem solving

Resources and Referrals

Summarize and Close

Building rapport is central to establishing a strong, trusting, and productive relationship:

  • Offer comfort
  • Use survivor’s chosen pronouns and name
  • Speak in a calm voice
  • Adjust your tone to the survivor’s tone
  • Be okay with silence. Communication includes allowing silences and/or long pauses. Often survivors need time to think, reflect or just get in touch with their feelings. You may need to clarify by saying statements like, “It’s alright not to talk. Take your time.”
  • Let the survivor know it is okay to go slow, to cry, or to repeat themselves, etc.
  • Ask open ended questions

You can also use “door openers” when you are establishing rapport or if the interaction feels “stuck” later. These are invitations to the survivor to talk or say more:

  • “If you would like to talk, I am here.”
  • “I’d be interested in what you are able to say.”
  • “I’d really like to hear what you’re thinking and interested in sharing.”
  • “How would you feel talking about it?”
  • “Sounds like you have some feelings/thoughts about this.”
  • “How do you feel about that?”

When you ask questions, explain why you are asking them. For example, explain the reason you are asking about alcohol use. Questions such as this are important but you want to minimize the likelihood of the survivor feeling as though you are blaming them for drinking.

To learn more about suggested language to use, phrasing suggestions, and trauma-informed interview techniques, visit the Ending Violence Against Women International resource library and/or the International Association of Chiefs of Police Response to Violence Against Women resource library for a wealth of information aimed at assisting law enforcement in their work with survivors of sexual assault.