Two hospitals streamline rape response

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 15

A rape victim who seeks treatment is thrown into a whirlwind.

If the victim goes to a hospital, he or she likely is sent to the emergency room, where the case can be a low priority among a parade of gunshot victims and people hurt in traffic accidents.

The person might deal with a dozen different people, most of them untrained in how to treat rape victims.

And a bad first contact with health-care providers can convince a victim not to report the crime or even complete treatment.

That’s why, beginning Jan. 1, rape victims 12 years and older at two Toledo hospitals will be filtered out of the emergency room, thanks to a program announced yesterday by the United Way.

It’s the Lucas County SANE/SART Project, and its goal is to replace the chaos of rape treatment with calm, concern, and one-on-one contact.

“We want to make it easy for people to get treatment and to have access to all available resources,” said Denise Abbott, the program’s coordinator.

The idea behind SANE/SART is to train a core of nurses – sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) – in the proper methods of rape treatment and put all victims in their care, not in the general mix of the emergency room.

When a rape victim arrives at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center or Toledo Hospital, he or she will be taken to a private room away from the emergency room, where a nurse will provide treatment and gather evidence for possible prosecution.

He or she will be joined by a police officer and a counselor from the YWCA’s Rape Crisis Center, who will form a sexual assault response team (SART).

“We’ve come a long way from one woman answering the phone in her living room, because she thought it was important,” said Pam Van Camp, director of the Rape Crisis Center.

The actions of that response team will be critical, Ms. Van Camp said. “That initial contact can set the stage for everything,” making it easier for victims to report and prosecute the crime, she said.

Last year, the Rape Crisis Center had about 600 requests for treatment. Only 278 rapes were reported to police.

Last month, 14 nurses at the two hospitals underwent more than 40 hours of training to become SANEs.

By making evidence-gathering the job of SANEs, the program hopes to limit the number of people who handle evidence gathered from the victim. Anyone who handles samples taken from a victim can be called into court to testify about possible contamination.

“We’ve had to shut down an entire emergency room to prosecute a rape case,” Lucas County Prosecutor Julia Bates said.

The nurses are taught how to testify effectively at rape trials – a skill that St. Vincent nurse Christine Kovacs, a newly trained SANE, thinks is important.

“I’ve never been to court, and never been questioned by someone who’s pretty good at questioning,” Ms. Kovacs said. “So the training should help a lot.”

Ms. Abbott said the two hospitals in the program have invested about $200,000 between them in new equipment and facilities for the program. By the end of 1998, all city hospitals will be involved in the program, she said.

Ms. Abbott said many similar programs across the country have taken up to two years to launch. Lucas County SANE/SART will start operations after six months of preparation.

“I’m just absolutely flabbergasted they got off the ground so quickly,” Ms. Bates said.