A new Falkirk-based unit for Forth Valley rape and other sexual assault victims could set the pattern for health boards across Scotland.
Based at Forth Valley Royal Hospital, the new Falkirk unit, to be known as the Meadow Centre, appears set to lead the way in improving the system.
The move, to take place early next year, aims to put a more human face on the way traumatised women are treated - and to bring several related services under one roof.
The Scottish Government is ploughing £8.5million over three years into national healthcare services for those who suffer rape and sexual assault.
The local development within a rapidly-developing Scottish national strategy follows earlier criticism by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary of what have been seen as inappropriate and disjointed services.
A key issue is that victims have had to endure forensic examination in a police station, and that particular problem has been addressed with the creation of the new Falkirk unit.
Forth Valley NHS says the Meadow Centre will be based in an existing building that is currently being adapted and re-launched as a special facility for victims.
It will be markedly less “institutional” than a police station, and it’s hoped victims - traumatised and at their lowest ebb - will feel much less conspicuous.
Exact details of how various services will be reshaped to improve the treatment of victims are expected to be announced early next year, but the forensic unit - as a key element of the wider plan - is already being seen as a trail-blazer.
Health boards from around Scotland are reckoned set to follow the lead set in Falkirk, potentially improving conditions for victims across Scotland struggling to face the worst experience of their lives.
Claire Montgomery, Advocacy Worker at Forth Valley Rape Crisis said: “The new NHS Forth Valley forensic unit is going to be a great asset.
“We have been very impressed with the level of thought that’s gone into designing the unit with the needs of survivors of sexual violence being seen as a top priority.
“Having to go through a forensic examination can be extremely difficult, and it is important that services such as this have taken the time to consider what survivors need during this traumatic time”.
She added: “Having a variety of other relevant services under one roof will be also be really beneficial for survivors accessing support and information, making sure people have access to the services they need that can support them in their recovery.”
Meanwhile the Scottish Government taskforce set up last year, and led by Chief Medical Officer Dr Catherine Calderwood, will be supporting health boards to improve a broad range of services for children and adults who have experienced rape and sexual assault.
Cabinet Secretary for Health Jeane Freeman has pointedly singled out the Falkirk-based initiative as an example to be followed, commenting: “I want to see compassionate healthcare, and support should be as close as possible to the point of need.
“Our taskforce is driving improvement in this important area and they are on track with their five year plan.
“I am particularly encouraged to see the progress NHS Forth Valley are making with the development of their new service for victims of sexual crime, which has been supported by Scottish Government funding.
“The commitment of the team to progress this and share their learning with other health boards is just one example of how we can make improvements for victims of sexual crime a reality”.
Cathie Cowan, NHS Forth Valley’s Chief Executive, is also enthusiastic about the launch of the Falkirk facility.
She said: “Our new centre has been specifically designed with the needs of users in mind.
“It will contain a forensic suite as well as a specialist area to meet the needs of children.
“It will also have police interview facilities for both children and adults and specially-trained staff to help deal with trauma and provide ongoing support.
“The development of this important new facility, which is due to open in April 2019, is the result of close working with a number of partners, including Police Scotland and Rape Crisis and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone involved.”
Sadly the need to bring fresh thinking to the way victims are treated is well-timed, as figures released by the Scottish Government earlier this year show that sexual crime is at record levels.
The figures included a 22 per cent rise in the number of rapes being reported to the police.
Meanwhile In at least 40 per cent of reported sexual offences the complainer was under 18.
Rape Crisis Scotland’s chief executive Sandy Brindley, commenting on the rise in offences, said: “Recorded levels of rape and attempted rape have increased by 99 per cent since 2010.
“Rape is a particularly underreported crime, which means that it hard to tell how much of this increase is due to people having more confidence in coming forward, and how much is due to more sexual crime being committed.
“What we do know is that our services are seeing unprecedented levels of demand, with more and more people coming forward to seek support.
“Some people are looking for support for incidents that happened recently, others about something that happened many years ago.
“No matter when it happened, rape crisis services across Scotland can provide free and confidential support.”
But, crucially, she added: “More needs to be done to ensure that people who do have the confidence to report rape or sexual assault don’t end up feeling let down or re-victimised by the justice process.
“We also need to tackle the root causes of sexual violence by investing in primary prevention work around consent and healthy relationships”.