Gaps in the system highlighted as Waratah is not utilised enough by survivors of sexual assault

Gaps in forensic services

Sexual assault support service Waratah has questioned if they are being utilised enough to emotionally assist survivors in the region.

Waratah provides free, specialised and therapeutic intervention, counselling and support services for people who have experienced sexual assault, sexual abuse or family domestic violence.

Bunbury police and Bunbury Regional Hospital have Waratah's contact information on file so that when a victim presents themselves, the service can be called on.

Waratah Chief Executive Officer Juliana Hussain said part of the service's funding was being on crisis call 24/7.

"Like anything else, there are layers of complexities. Some survivors don't want to charge or make a report. But we're available for when the community needs us and think we could be utilised more," Ms Hussain said.

In regards to the amount of sexual assaults that are presented to authorities in the South West, the Mail found the answer was not consistent across sources.

Whilst Waratah and the Bunbury Police said they were called out a maximum of one to two times per month, the WA Country Health Service said in 2020, there were only two cases who presented with alleged sexual assault to the Bunbury Emergency Department.

The Mail spoke to a sexual assault survivor who could not speak highly enough of the work Waratah do.

The survivor, who wishes to remain anonymous, went to hospital back in 2019 at 1am after being violently attacked.

She said within the first hour of presenting, a representative from Waratah arrived to offer support.

"She was just what I needed at the time. She told me she was prepared to stay with me as long as I needed. But I had no idea that these services were available," the survivor said.

As part of the Mail's investigation, it was found there was a lack of transparency around wait times for victims if they wished to be forensically tested.

The survivor told the Mail that when she went to hospital, she waited seven hours before she was forensically tested.

During this time, she was told not to drink any water, brush her hair or wipe away the dried blood in her mouth, teeth and on her face.

She added that during the wait time she had been to the toilet almost 20 times in a shock response to the assault.

"I kept saying I would be amazed if they found any forensic evidence on my body," she said.

"It turned out that the forensic testing was a specific role that someone from the hospital with specific training could only do."

Ms Hussain confirmed there had been instances where Waratah had been called in at 10pm but due to no forensic nurse on site, the survivor had to wait until 8am to be forensically tested.

Ms Hussain said during their long wait to be forensically tested, a survivor may be reflecting in their head about the incident and may just talk themselves out of being forensically tested in order to be able to prosecute the perpetrator.

"We don't know why someone may wait ten hours to be tested and why someone may not.

"But the survivor would definitely be questioning if they were at fault, which is why these tests need to happen in a timely manner."

The WA Country Health Service said the priority for the hospital was to provide coordinated medical and forensic support to victims of sexual assault to ensure they were cared for in a timely and compassionate manner.

South West patients have access to a Sexual Assault Resource Centre doctor which is on call 24/7, but is based in Perth.

WACHS told the Mail it had recently trained 10 new staff who could perform the forensic testing, but that there had always been staff on site able to perform the service.

The question was never answered as to why survivors have to wait so long to be tested in the first place.

Bunbury detective Greg Downing said a person may have to wait at hospital because theywould need to wait for a Sexual Assault Resource Centre trained staff to be available.

Survivors do have access to a self-administered early evidence kit if they do not want to wait for the professional forensic testing to occur.

However, there was no clarification around how often or when it is used.

Detective Downing said the self administered kit had been available for some time to survivors who were unable to get to hospital and wanted to collect forensic material.

He also confirmed the Bunbury police were happy with the process and that evidence collected through the survivor using the kit was admissible in court.

"We're not in the room when they do it but the process is monitored," Detective Downing said.

When the Mail asked Waratah and its survivor about the early evidence kit, they had never heard of it.

The Country Health Service said they had regular meetings with a range of agencies including Waratah.

"A referral to Waratah occurs with patient consent with the emergency department. Details of Waratah are offered by staff to the patient for self-referral if they do not consent to referral at the time," WA Country Health Service spokesperson Chloe Lawler said.

"WACHS understands that some victims of sexual assault may feel more comfortable having a support person with them during their initial assessment which the Bunbury team fully supports."

Waratah reiterated that the service understands that survivors don't always report sexual assault straight away.

"We understand that people come forward when they feel safe to do so. There are so many factors around why someone may or may not use our service. This is about educating services around being more than one dimensional about their work. We are here for the South West."

If you need help, contact the 24-hour national sexual assault counselling line on 1800 737 732.