What is a SARC?

Sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) offer medical, practical and emotional support. They have specially trained NHS doctors, nurses and support workers to care for you.

If you decide to report the assault to the police, they can arrange for you to attend a SARC for medical care and, if you wish, a forensic medical examination.

If you are unsure about whether to report to the police or not, you can still refer yourself to a SARC for assessment, medical treatment, sexual health advice and emergency contraception to prevent pregnancy.

If you refer yourself to a SARC and are considering reporting the assault to the police, the centre can arrange for you to have an informal talk with a specially trained police officer, who can explain what is involved. You can refer yourself by calling 0300 303 4626 or by submitting a short self-referral form and we will call you back at a time you specify.

There are also specially trained advisers available in some SARCs or voluntary organisations to help people who have been sexually assaulted. These independent sexual violence advisers (ISVA) can help victims get access to the other support services they need. They will also support you through the criminal justice system if you decide to report the assault to the police, including supporting you through the trial, should the case go to court.

You can tell someone you trust first, such as a friend, relative or teacher, who can help you get the support you need. SARC services and ISVA support are free to all, whether a resident of the UK or not.

Forensic medical examination

If you have been sexually assaulted, you don’t have to have a forensic medical examination. However, it can provide useful evidence to support a police investigation. You can also access sexual health advice and emergency contraception. If you are unsure whether to report to the police, you can choose to have the examination and we can store any forensic evidence for you. This means that you can decide later.

You can decide at any stage if you would like a forensic medical examination. However, the sooner this takes place, the more chance of collecting useful evidence. If the assault occurred more than 10 days ago, it is still important to ask for advice from a SARC or the police about a forensic medical examination.

The forensic medical examination will take place in one of our purpose built sexual assault referral centres – our friendly staff will look after you and guide you through the process. The examination is carried out by a doctor or nurse specially trained in sexual assault forensic medicine.

The doctor or nurse will ask any relevant health questions – for example, about your general medical health, the assault or any recent sexual activity. They will examine you and look for any injuries you may have. They will take samples, such as swabs from anywhere you have been kissed, touched or had anything inserted. They will also take urine and blood samples and occasionally hair, depending on the information you provide about the assault, and may also retain some clothing and other items.

The forensic examination will go at your pace and you will be given time to decide what happens to you. You can choose if there are parts of the examination that you don’t want. The doctor or nurse will explain your options. You can change your mind at any time.

If you haven’t reported to the police yet

If you haven’t decided whether to involve the police, any forensic medical evidence that’s collected will be stored at the SARC to allow you time to decide if you do want to report the assault. An ISVA, sometimes called an advocate, will also offer practical and emotional support, whether or not you wish to involve the police.

If you do report to the police

If you do decide to report it to the police, a police officer specially trained in supporting victims of sexual assault will talk to you and help to make sure you understand what’s going on at each stage.

The police will investigate the assault. This will involve you having a forensic medical examination and making a statement about what happened. The police will pass their findings, including the forensic report, to the Crown Prosecution Service, who will decide whether the case should go to trial.

To find out more about what’s involved in an investigation and trial, you can:


Your details will be kept as confidential as possible. However, if there’s a police investigation or criminal prosecution linked to the assault, any material relating to it is “disclosable”. This means it may have to be produced in court.

If there is no investigation or prosecution, information about you won’t be shared with other services without your permission, unless there’s a concern that you or anyone else is at risk of serious harm.

About Devon & Cornwall SARC

Devon & Cornwall SARC are part of the NHS and manage SARCs in Exeter, Plymouth and Truro. We provide specially trained medical and counselling staff to help you when you need it most.

To find out more about how sexual assault referral centres can help you, see: