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Exactly what happens when you report a sexual assault.

If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, please seek help with a qualified counsellor or by calling 1800 RESPECT.

It’s an understatement to say reporting a sexual assault can be daunting.

After all, it’s unlikely a victim had ever thought about what to do before they were faced with the task. So now what?

Victoria Police Senior Sergeant Brett Meadows, who has worked in the Sexual Offence Child Abuse Investigation Team for 12 years, explains that it’s really up to you.

“The victim’s welfare is our number one priority. The victim needs to have a lot of control over the investigation,” Snr Sgt Meadows said.

What’s the best way to report it?

While it’s completely up to the individual, Snr Sgt Meadows says it can be easiest for women reporting sexual assault to phone ahead instead of walking straight into their local police station.

“Firstly, (victims) come to us in a number of ways. One would be coming to the station, one would be calling police, others go through emergency at the hospital and others will ring say a sexual assault counselling line. All of these end up coming through to us one way or another. ”

Snr Sgt Meadows advises people to first seek medical treatment if required and then to call either Triple Zero, their local police station or a direct number for a sexual offences investigation unit in their area.

“Say ‘I need to report that I’ve been sexually assaulted and I don’t know what to do’.”

On the phone, the police officer answering will first determine if they need to send an officer to them or put them through to the specialist unit, who will arrange a time for them to come in.

What to expect once you’re at the police station.

If you’ve called ahead you can expect to go up to the front desk and ask for the officer you spoke to, without need to reveal what it is about in front of others at the station, Snr Sgt Meadow assures.

He says there is almost always a private area at a police station where the discussion will take place. In Victoria, this might even take place at a Multi-Discipline Centres – where police, medical staff and counselling services are all under one roof- away from the regular police station.

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There, you’ll be asked to give a few details about the assault, such as how they were attacked, the time, the place and if the victim knew the offender or could describe them. Any “nitty gritty” details will be held off until they make a decision about pressing charged.

Snr Sgt Meadows says victims won’t have to make a decision on whether or not they want to press charges, but these initial details are enough for officers to launch the investigation.

After reporting the assault, you’ll be referred to counselling services, and know when you’ll be speaking to your investigator next.

You’ll have one police officer the entire time.

“Generally, you will meet the investigator on day one and stick with them right through the entire process.”

If for any reason you don’t feel comfortable with the first police officer you speak to – say you would like to speak to a woman rather than a man – you can ask for a different police officer.

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“It’s a conversation that they probably need to have earlier than later and keep the consistency through the process.

“The victim’s welfare is going to come first and as far as we’re concerned, the better the relationship with the investigator, the better the case will be in the way it will progress through the system.”

You’re in control from start to finish.

Snr Sgt Meadows says the investigator will keep in contact with the person reporting the assault, but how often they chat and the way they communicate is up to the individual.

“Sometimes there can only be a couple of initial meetings… other times they may spend weeks where they meet every day.”

“They may after they’ve provided their statement say ‘look I just want to be left for counselling, just let me know when I’m required for court’.”

He says the victim will be asked if they want to communicate with phone calls or emails and what updates they want about the case, but should feel free to call at any point.

You can expect to be assigned one investigator for the entire case. (Image via iStock.)

What if I change my mind?

"If at any point they are uncomfortable with the investigation they can withdraw their complaint," Snr Sgt Meadows says.

"We understand why people change their mind. There's no issue with that."

He says the reports and any physical evidence gathered will be kept on the system for at least 50 years, in case they change their mind again.

Do I have to undergo a medical test?

It's completely up to the individual if they want to undergo a medical examination, Snr Sgt Meadows explains. "If they don't want to be examined, they won't be examined."

"Sometimes the victim may be okay to have say a physical examination - which means looking at injuries and the like - but not go through the forensic side of it because it's a bit intrusive."

He says there were other ways physical evidence could be gathered, such as through clothing - and all this would be discussed with the police officer when the crime is reported and then with a medical officer.

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What if the assault happened in another state?

Snr Sgt Meadows says although police can only investigate crimes that happen in their own state, they would ensure that the victim is put in tough with police in that state and helped any way they can.

If it happened outside of the town or city where you live you can report it at your local police station and talk to local police officers, but it will be investigated in the city where the offence occurred and any court case later on will also take place there.

What to expect in court.

If it comes to the stage where the offender has been charged and has pleaded "not guilty" on trial, the victim will be asked to give evidence at some point. The defendant also maintains their right to have the person alleging the assault cross-examined.

"There's a number of things that have been put in place to protect anyone who is going to give evidence in relation to a sexual assault," Snr Sgt Meadows explains.

He says the process has been made as trauma-free as possible for the victim. For example, they don't have to face their attacker or their family, and can give evidence in another room of the courthouse or with a temporary barrier in place. They will also be accompanied by at least one support person.

Snr Sgt Meadows assures steps have also been put in place to ensure the questions directed at the victim are fair and relevant - so no questions about sexual history.

Mamamia’s Survivors of Sexual Assault Week is about providing support for the one in five women Australian women who will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. To read more from Survivors of Sexual Assault Week, click here. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, don't suffer in silence, contact 1800 RESPECT or visit www.1800respect.org.au

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