Nurse can make all the difference with rape victims

  1. Nurse can make all the difference with rape victims

    By Laura Crimaldi / News Staff Writer
    Monday, June 28, 2004

    Rape victims who go to hospitals with nurses specially trained to handle sexual assault are more likely to let health care providers collect evidence that can be used if criminal charges result, according to prosecutors.

    State Department of Public Health officials take the argument one step further, saying the evidence sexual assault nurse examiners, or SANE, provides to crime laboratories is better than evidence gathered at hospitals without such care-givers.

    "I wish there were more of them," Middlesex District Attorney Martha Coakley said in a telephone interview last week.

    The certified nurses are on call to assist sexual assault patients at 22 emergency rooms statewide, including Newton-Wellesley Hospital.

    They are trained to perform a clinical forensic exam to collect evidence, offer prevention for HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy. They also connect patients with rape crisis centers services and testify in cases that go to court.

    For prosecutors, such nurses are crucial for the evidence they collect from sexual assault victims and the testimony they provide if cases go to trial.

    "I think that our evidence that comes to us has been good from both sides, but one thing about a SANE nurse, they are doing it again and again and again," said David Traub, spokesman for Norfolk District Attorney William Keating.

    At a meeting Wednesday of the Governor's Commission on Sexual and Domestic Violence, Lucia Zuniga, SANE director at DPH, said the nurses provide state crime labs with 50 percent of evidence in sexual assault cases.

    In Boston, 60 percent of evidence in sexual assault cases comes from SANE nurses, Zuniga said. They have a 95 percent conviction rate when they testify in court, she said.

    That evidence can be collected even if a sexual assault patient doesn't want to file a police report.

    "The things to keep in mind in a rape are: Did it happen? And was it consensual?" said Coakley.

    The proof from a Massachusetts Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit renders moot any defense argument over whether the rape happened, but it doesn't address whether it was consensual sex.

    "It's important to corroborate a victim's story early on," said Coakley, noting juries take special note of what victims do immediately after an alleged incident. "It makes it clear for the jury that she went to the hospital to have a kit done."

    In a telephone interview, Carlene Pavlos, DPH director of the division of violence and injury prevention, said SANE nurses provide better quality evidence.

    "The quality differs. In the quality assurance that's been conducted by the crime labs in Massachusetts, we're beginning to develop that demonstrates that SANE (nurses) do collect better quality evidence," said Pavlos.

    Coakley and Traub wouldn't say SANE evidence is necessarily better, but they acknowledged they are more likely to get evidence if the patient had gone to a SANE ER.

    They also said they offer training for hospital staff, but generally that instruction is limited to letting the nurses know they may be required to testify.

    While the Massachusetts District Attorneys Association has endorsed the program, Coakley and Traub said it's important prosecutors keep their involvement with SANE at arm's length so the clinicians' objectivity isn't questioned.

    "We don't have a medical specialty here," said Traub.
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