Help for victims of domestic abuse: “The earlier, the better”

21 Dec 2022

Since 2010, victims of domestic abuse have been finding unbureaucratic help at LMU’s Institute for Forensic Medicine.

A cup lies broken on the floor

Violence often occurs in the immediate personal environment. | © picture-alliance / Helga Lade Fotoagentur GmbH, Ge | Alfred Schauhuber/Helga Lade

“When abuse happens in the home environment, deciding to go to the police is often not easy,” Dr. Barbara Stöttner, expert for forensic medicine, explains in an interview. That makes it all the more important to have ‘outpatient’ services with low barriers to entry for victims of abuse. Stöttner and her colleagues meticulously document bruising and other visible external injuries – all under the cloak of professional secrecy. Should a lawsuit be filed, these findings will serve as valuable evidence.

Who comes to you as an ‘outpatient’?

Nearly forty victims a year. Women of all ages, from all social backgrounds. Very young unemployed women, but also well-off fifty-year-olds with good jobs. Occasionally, we see men coming to us too, but that is much rarer. The work of the investigation unit for victims of domestic abuse is available to adults only.

But we also examine children and youngsters. The Bavarian Child Protection Service is responsible for them and is funded by the State Ministry for Family, Labor and Social Affairs (StMAS) within the framework of Bavaria’s overall child protection concept.

What do you do for the people who come to you?

We document external injuries such as bruises, scratches and other visible traces. That is extremely important for victims of domestic abuse, because they often don’t yet know whether they want to report the matter. When abuse happens in the home environment, deciding to go to the police is often not easy. But if criminal charges are pressed at some point, the victims have to sign a waiver releasing us from the duty of professional secrecy. In this way, the court can have recourse to well-documented findings. In court, our job as forensic scientists is to interpret the findings and, where appropriate, the results of a forensic examination as well.

How exactly do you go about documenting these matters?

We review the person’s medical history. This is followed by a full physical and/or genital examination and – where necessary – a forensic examination. We use cotton swabs and stamps to secure traces of saliva or sperm, for example. If necessary, we also take a genital swab. In the case of criminal proceedings, the investigating authorities and/or the court assess how conclusive the findings of a forensic examination are. Physical findings are plotted on a standardized body template and described. We take photographs of all findings, unless the victims prefer us not to do so. It is also very common for victims to bring photos taken on their smartphone. These too are included and kept with the documentation.

Is it advisable to photograph your own injuries?

It certainly does no harm! The pictures cannot be equated with our documentation, obviously, but they can be useful in a criminal case.

How quickly should people come to you?

The earlier, the better. You can still see a bruise or a scratch a couple of days later. But mucous membranes heal very quickly, so smaller findings could have healed up by then. And for traces of DNA, every hour counts. Similarly, if damage is done to the neck through strangling or choking, we are glad if the victim comes as quickly as possible – ideally within the first 72 hours in the case of sex crimes. We have an on-call service that is also staffed at nights and weekends.

Presumably, not everything can be properly documented?

We can only document findings that are outwardly visible on the skin, because forensic scientists do not work with x-ray or ultrasound devices. Nor do we check the victims who come to us for sexually transmitted diseases or the like. In such cases, we put them in touch with practising clinical staff. We write down other conspicuous findings of which we cannot keep a photographic record in our capacity as forensic scientists – for example if someone is feeling pain or keeps crying, which could point to a depressive state.

Dr. Barbara Stöttner | © by Foto Thome Schwetzingen

How do victims find you?

Some of them google us. Very often, they are sent here by doctors who know us, counseling centers or women’s shelters.

Would you like to broaden the service you provide?

Up to now we have not advertised our outpatient service. It receives no dedicated funding. We do our work because we believe it is important. Due to a legal amendment, however, statutory health insurers will in future handle confidential forensic bodily examinations, including documentation and the holding of evidence. That is a big step in the right direction.

Institut für Rechtsmedizin: Untersuchungsstelle für Opfer häuslicher Gewalt (in German)

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