In the waiting room for The Haven, there are no magazines or music playing; instead the walls hang abstract artworks and a screen shows ocean waves gently lapping at a shore. Great care has been taken to make this room a calming atmosphere and omit anything that may be triggering for those who pass through: victims of sexual assault and rape.
One in four women and one in 10 men will experience sexual assault in the UK at some point in their lives. The Haven, based at King’s College Hospital in Camberwell, south London, provides crucial support to sexual assault victims, while also obtaining forensic evidence so perpetrators can be caught and prosecuted.
When the centre first opened its doors in 2000 it catered to adults of all gender identities, but since - and heartbreakingly due to the demand for services - it has expanded to help adolescents and children.
Following assault, clients referred to the service - either by themselves or police - will undergo a gentle two-minute forensic examination with a female examiner. They’ll also be given medical care, reassurance around pregnancy, and information and support going forward - all of which takes four to five hours. Afterwards they’ll receive several counselling sessions.
The forensic exam can be especially difficult following such a traumatic event. “The examination shouldn’t be any more painful than a smear test, but following what’s just happened it can bring up all sorts of issues that make it that little bit harder to go through,” explains Jo Delaforce, Matron of The Haven.
Beforehand, a crisis worker will guide the client through what’s going to happen - a crucial process to ensure there are no surprises. “You want to know exactly what is going to happen to you: from the moment you walk through the door to the moment you leave,” says Jo. “It’s about building a rapport, that trust, supporting a client so they feel comfortable but more importantly making them feel in control - because whatever happened to them before they got there, it was out of their control.”
On the day I’m there, the forensic suite and upstairs rooms - including the washroom - are off limits as a client has just arrived in need of support. The washroom is of particular significance as this is where many of the clients are able to finally relax after such a horrifying ordeal. They are given a wash-bag filled with toiletries including shampoo, shower gel, moisturiser, lip balm and mascara, and this simple act of humanity often means the world to them with many recipients bursting into tears.
Crisis worker Teri Raymond, who deals mostly with self-referred clients, says she recently supported a client who arrived at the centre and was very distraught. “She’d come with nothing. She couldn’t go back home so she couldn’t get any clothing and didn’t have a wash bag or anything like that, Teri recalls. “I gave her a wash bag just before she went into the shower and she burst into tears.
“The tears were of happiness, not of sadness. She was very grateful. She felt quite dirty and just wanted a shower, so she was really happy that we’d given her this wash bag and was amazed at what was in it. She didn’t realise that she’d get so many products.”
The wash bag initiative is a collaboration between Boots and The Haven. 70 volunteers spent one week packing up 12,000 wash bags which were then delivered to 47 sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) across the UK. The scheme is in its second year and despite being a relatively simple thing it is already making a huge difference.
The project was originally established by Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Cornwall and is part of a three-year agreement between Boots UK and SARCs to donate over 36,000 wash bags in total.
Volunteer Imogen Wood says it’s “amazing” to see how a week’s worth of packing wash bags impacts lives: “To be able to give comfort and dignity back, it makes me want to go and work in a warehouse all day every day. Seeing the impact it’s having is really heartening.”
In addition to volunteers, crisis workers like Teri and Christine support people through such devastating ordeals 24 hours per day, seven days per week. Jo explains that many out-of-hours crisis workers are doing the role in addition to another full-time job.
But, while supporting the victims is incredibly difficult, the knowledge that workers are helping makes it wholly worthwhile. Teri explains: “It makes us smile knowing that they came in here feeling distraught, crying and in crisis, and they’ve often left with a smile on their face.”
Crisis worker Christine Murphy recalls a poignant story where a homeless man turned up at the centre for help. “When he arrived he was unkempt and wearing a hospital gown,” she explains. “After the forensic examination he was given a wash bag and used the washroom facilities. When he came out he looked like a completely different man.
“He said: ‘I feel human again’.”
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