Team eases trauma in sex assault cases

July 25, 2003|by TAMELA BAKER

Washington County Hospital introduced a program this month designed to make the aftermath of a sexual assault a little less traumatic for victims, and increase the likelihood that the guilty party will be convicted.

The hospital introduced the Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner program July 1 in order to "offer victims a place to go to get an exam done and provide a place where they feel safe and where they find kindness and respect," said SAFE coordinator Marcia Thompson.

Now, nurses specially trained in conducting examinations and collecting forensic evidence to be used in prosecuting assailants assist victims when they come to the hospital. Before the SAFE program, Thompson said, victims had to wait with all the other patients in the hospital's emergency room to see a doctor.


"Given the numbers we see in the ER, the physicians didn't have enough time to spend with the victims," she said.

With the new procedure, victims are taken quickly to more private quarters. SAFE nurses can collect evidence, perform most of the examinations and take care of paperwork needed by law enforcement agencies. Citizens Assisting and Sheltering the Abused, a partner in the program, sends a counselor. SAFE nurses also can provide clothing for victims.

"Ideally when a patient comes in, the triage nurse gets the basic information, and a SAFE nurse and CASA are notified," Thompson said.

So far, the Washington County Hospital has three SAFE certified nurses, Thompson said. One more is awaiting notification of certification and two are in training.

SAFE nurses are on call and available at all hours, Thompson said.

While the sheer volume of emergency room patients meant that doctors could spend only a limited amount of time with victims, SAFE nurses normally spend three to four hours with a patient, said SAFE nurse Cindy Lewis.

Lewis, who also is a clinical educator for the hospital's emergency department, said that especially with younger victims, "it takes about an hour before the exam starts to develop a trust relationship" between nurse and patient. The process of collecting evidence can be humiliating for the victim, the nurses said, which was one of the reasons for beginning the program in the first place.

Forensic evidence should be collected within 72 hours of an assault, Thompson said, or up to five days afterward in certain circumstances.

Before the SAFE program, doctors had all the responsibility for collecting evidence, Lewis said. "One of the biggest problems ... was that the evidence wasn't stored or sealed correctly," she said. Now SAFE nurses are trained not only to collect and seal the evidence, but also to testify when an assault case goes to trial, although Lewis said none of them have been called on to testify yet.

"The whole goal is that they don't go to trial," Lewis said, because the presence of untainted DNA evidence will compel an assailant to admit guilt, thus sparing the victim the trauma of a trial.

The nurses emphasized that the SAFE service is paid for by the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, and is free to victims. The hospital auxiliary provided money to purchase clothing for victims, and the Antietam Health Care Foundation kicked in another $20,000 for examining equipment. SAFE also will be the beneficiary of the foundation's annual golf tournament in early October, Thompson said.

For now, SAFE nurses are treating victims aged 13 and up as they prepare to begin a program for child victims in January. More special training is required for pediatric cases, including how to interview child victims, the nurses said.

In addition to CASA, state and local law enforcement agencies as well as other government agencies are part of the program's resource team.

Getting the word out about the program is the main issue now, Lewis said. "Once physicians realize this program is here, they can refer their patients to us," she said.

The Herald-Mail Articles