Sexual Assault Response Team convenes in Lake CountySexual violence isn’t easy to discuss. Statistically, only a fraction of all sexual assaults are ever reported. Fear, shame, and uncertainty about how they’ll be treated or whether they’ll be believed can keep victims from coming forward. The end result is that many women and a smaller, but significant number of men go without the help and support they need.
By: Tammy Francois, Lake County News Chronicle
Sexual violence isn’t easy to discuss. Statistically, only a fraction of all sexual assaults are ever reported. Fear, shame, and uncertainty about how they’ll be treated or whether they’ll be believed can keep victims from coming forward. The end result is that many women and a smaller, but significant number of men go without the help and support they need.
To be sure, reporting such a crime can be a difficult decision, but locally, advocates, law enforcement officers and medical, human service and legal professionals are creating a process that focuses on the needs of sexual assault victims with the hope of encouraging more to seek services. The group comprises the area’s first Sexual Assault Response Team or SART, and they have been meeting since last July.
“There are lots of models to look at locally, in the state and nationally, but we’re looking at a best practices model based on the demographic of the community,” said Rachel Johnson, sexual assault victims’ advocate at North Shore Horizons, Lake County’s resource for services for battered women and sexual assault victims. Processes and protocols that work in a bigger city may not be useful in a small town or rural areas, so the SART intends to identify barriers and improve available supports for victims, she said.
The Two Harbors and Silver Bay police departments, Lake County’s attorney, sheriff and probation offices, Lake View Memorial Hospital and the Lake County Department of Health and Human Services have all signed memoranda of understanding, with participation by representatives of their agencies or institutions. Judge Michael Cuzzo has also attended a meeting and technical support is being provided to the group by the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
The SART is coordinated by Johnson and NSH Executive Director, Tara Golden, and is one of hundreds across the nation in which participants come from a broad range of professional backgrounds. Each brings something unique to the table.
For Laura Comrie, director of nursing at LVMH, ensuring good quality medical care for victims has been the impetus behind her involvement.
“If you’re only getting 12 cases a year, how do you know you’re doing what’s best for the patient?” she queried. “As an administrator I felt we needed to get that information and bring it back (to the hospital).”
Comrie and nurse Lisa Beatrez have also looked outside of the group for answers and resources. Both women sought grant funding and were able to go to Colorado Springs for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner training where they received specialized instruction in evidence collection, documentation and establishing and maintaining a chain of evidence. Beatrez is one of many SANEs providing forensic exams to victims at the two Duluth hospitals. Her experience has given her a new perspective on the crime of sexual assault.
“For me, it heightened my awareness of how prevalent it is. It’s just not something that’s brought out,” she said.
Two Harbors police officer Ken Anderson added: “The victims are always there. Although (law enforcement) sees it a lot, that doesn’t mean that everyone else does. There’s education that goes along with this so we can be prepared as a community to respond.”
To that end, each agency has undertaken the task of evaluating its protocols to determine where assets and deficits exist.
“One of the positives was that the police, sheriff’s department and probation were already giving out information about (NSH) resources,” said Johnson. Some of the deficits determined by the agencies are already being addressed.
Comrie and Beatrez have started a SANE program at LVMH to provide the high level of care to victims and ensure that evidence is collected properly in the event that the case is turned over to law enforcement for investigation. The choice to report to law enforcement is made by the victim except in cases where she or he is a child or a vulnerable adult.
Asked if turning over the control of that decision to the victim presented a hurdle for officers whose professional instincts are to prevent crimes or find those responsible, Assistant Police Chief Rick Hogenson said, “The situations are so delicate that we have to respect (the victim’s) wishes. We’ll face the hurdles as they come.”
The process of developing consistent protocols can be a long process, but the benefits will be many, said Johnson.
“SART is about culture change; it is about taking a collective approach to caring for some of the most vulnerable people in our community,” she added. “SART will be of help to victims because it will make sure victims are getting clear, concise and consistent information at every point of entry into the system.”
For more information about resources for sexual assault victims, visit North Shore Horizons website or call Rachel Johnson at 218-834-5924. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual or domestic violence call the number above or 1-800-834-5923. The crisis line is answered 24 hours a day.