While all nurses are heroes for the caring work they do, the Women's Freedom Center would like to give some well-deserved public recognition to a specially trained few: those who step up to care for victims, and gather forensic evidence, after a sexual assault.
Sexual assault is a profound violation of a person's body, sense of safety, and autonomy, and each survivor's needs are unique. We're fortunate in Windham and southern Windsor counties to have emergency rooms with skilled staff to provide critical services to victims. These Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, or SANEs, offer trauma-informed medical care, and are "recognized experts in preserving forensic evidence," according to Sarah Robinson, Vermont's SANE Program Coordinator. They share on-call responsibility 24/7, and are called to the E.R. along with an advocate from the Women's Freedom Center whenever a rape victim comes in.
For a victim, choosing to go to the hospital after a sexual assault can be a scary decision, yet it's usually the best way to have any injuries treated, and prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Even if a survivor doesn't want to report the assault to police, they are entitled to free and confidential medical care, and this is where SANEs step in.
SANEs are all registered nurses in Vermont, and usually already have full-time jobs — not necessarily in the E.R. They choose to undergo 40 hours of additional training on evidence collection, then acquire many supervised hours in the field before they're able to perform this vital exam on their own. (Please note: some graphic details to follow). Theirs is a delicate task of balancing the various needs of their patient: treating the survivor with compassion and respect, yet also having to ask them painful questions, and having them remove clothing to be examined for injuries, DNA evidence, and perhaps get injuries photographed. It's a highly personal, invasive process that may include getting cheek swabs, pelvic swabs, pubic hair samples, fingernail scrapings, and giving up relevant clothing so it can be sent to a lab. It's also time-consuming, and even with expert care, it takes an average of 3-4 hours to complete the process: every detail of the exam is covered by strict protocol, with each sample needing to be separately labeled and sealed for possible use in prosecution. All material must stay in the custody of the SANE until she hands it over to law enforcement the same day. And, because their expertise in preserving forensic evidence is recognized, SANEs are often called on to testify as expert witnesses.
It's hard to overstate the impact these special nurses have on rape victims. As advocates, we are often in the exam room with them at any hour of the day or, most often, night, providing support if a survivor wants us present, so we see first-hand the gentleness and expertise SANEs bring to their sensitive work. They explain each step in advance, allowing the victim to say yes or no to any part of the exam or treatment that's offered. This helps to restore a sense of autonomy and dignity to someone whose body has just been violated. Moreover, SANEs recognize that only survivors themselves can decide what, if anything, they want to do in terms of law enforcement. No decision is needed right away, either — evidence can be stored for up to six months, allowing the survivor time to get support and choose what ultimately feels safest and best to them. For more information, please give our office a call at 257-7364.
To all our great SANE nurses in this community: thank you for your dedicated work!
The Women's Freedom Center is the local organization in Windham and Southern Windsor County working to end domestic and sexual violence. Follow us on Facebook at Women's Freedom Center and at www.womensfreedomcenter.net. You can reach an advocate on our 24-hour crisis line at 802-254-6954.