Sexual assault survivors shouldn’t have to leave the hospital wearing a sheet

Sexual assault survivors are forced to endure indignity after indignity. After the trauma of the initial assault, victims must navigate invasive medical exams, and too often, poorly trained law enforcement and intense social judgement.

But there’s one indignity we don’t often hear about, and that’s what happens after survivors receive a forensic medical exam and are asked to hand over their clothing as evidence. What do they wear home from the hospital? If the facility doesn’t have a specialized sexual assault unit, it may not have clothing to provide—forcing them to leave in a hospital gown.

Thankfully, activist organizations are stepping up to right this wrong. One shining example is The Grateful Garment Project, a non-profit based in California dedicated exclusively to donating brand-new clothing to victims of sexual assault.

The Grateful Garment Project   Sexual Assault Response Team

Funded by donations, the organization coordinates with local county Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART) and hospital affiliated programs, which work to get the clothing into the hands of assault survivors. “Our hope is that these basic items will reduce further trauma and help restore dignity to victimized women, children, and men,” says the group’s founder, a Bay Area activist named Lisa Blanchard.

The group supplies underwear, bras, flip flops, sweatpants, and sweatshirts, plus toiletries and snacks. According to its website, the average wholesale cost of providing these items is about $50 per set of items, and from 2013 to 2014, the group distributed 14,371 items around the state of California.

So how do The Grateful Garment Project’s services play out in practice? Kim Walker is the SART Program Coordinator for Santa Clara County, California, which has had an ongoing partnership with the group for about five years. Walker explains that upon receiving a patient in the ER, her team of medical practitioners first examine her or him to make sure the victim is medically stable. They treat any immediate physical trauma and provide relevant medications to prevent pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections.

Then, with the patient’s permission, they’ll conduct the forensic component of the exam. They’ll collect evidence for a rape kit, which includes taking photos of physical trauma and swabbing for bodily fluids such as semen, blood, and sweat. And, in almost every instance, Walker says, they’ll collect some article of clothing. For obvious reasons, undergarments are the most common item they will typically ask to collect. Shoes can also be important, and sometimes outwear is taken, too. The items are then sent to a crime lab to test for DNA.

And that’s how assault survivors can wind up with nothing to wear home. “When patients come [to the hospital] they’re often still in the midst of trauma window. We try not to add to that trauma,” Walker says. She admits that even the medical exam can be traumatic, and then, by taking away their clothing, “we’re taking something else away from them, so we don’t want them to leave without that being replaced on some level.”

Most of the time a survivor’s clothing won’t be returned, because the lab will need to dissect it for evidence. Sometimes survivors lose an item of clothing with sentimental value, or if the survivor is from a low socioeconomic background, they may lose their only pair of jeans, explains Amy Edelstein, a director of the Staten Island, New York chapter of Safe Horizon, a large national victims’ advocacy group.

Safe Horizon offers clothing to survivors, too, and last year, a nurse specializing in sexual assault care launched a similar program at her medical center in Cleveland. But The Grateful Garment Project is the only group dedicating itself full-time to the cause.

Walker says that organizations like Blanchard’s are doing important work. Even if a facility has some supplies, The Grateful Garment Project can offer an immense boost. “This gives us so much more choice and range, which is important,” Walker says, “because we treat everyone from every single socioeconomic background. All sizes, men and women, queer and trans folks.”

One might think a patient could just call a family member or close friend to bring an extra change of clothes, but often, survivors are not yet ready to contact anyone or share that they’ve been assaulted, says Edelstein, who has spent years working with these patients.

And that’s why it’s so important that these facilities have clothing to offer survivors. “Sexual assault is a very horrific trauma. It’s about the loss of power and control and from one person to another,” Edelstein says. “When they give up their clothing, it’s another loss, another control they’re giving up. So something as simple as having new clothing that feels normal can add just a little bit of comfort to them.”