Rape is traumatic enough without having to sit in a crowded emergency room for hours, waiting for a nurse to be available to collect the evidence.
“I always go back to this one particular case I had when I was a detective,” said Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Capt. Carol Gregg. “We went to a hospital and we waited in the waiting room. About two hours in, I went to someone and asked, ‘Can you at least put us in a private room?’ We were on about the fifth hour of waiting … my victim, she looked at me and said I have a baby at home. I’ve got to go.”
The victim left her clothing and the evidence on it with Gregg. But everything on her body that could’ve been gathered walked out the door with her.
Now victims’ advocates, investigators and prosecutors here believe they are turning the tables on this problem and a litany of others with a squad of nurses.
These nurses are specially trained not only to provide more immediate medical care, but to be the careful detectives needed to successfully prosecute these cases.
“The hope is that in the future we get better cases and better evidence,” said Reid Scott, chief of the Special Victims team at the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office.
Rape victims like Julie Weil of Jupiter, who was kidnapped and raped in 2002, say that because these nurses volunteered for this task, they come to each case with a compassion that can ease the victim and make getting that evidence a more bearable experience.
“Someone without that training? It can be cold and unfriendly,” said Weil, who was examined after the assault by a specially trained nurse in Miami-Dade County. “The doctor that saw me, the nurse that saw me gave me strength to go to the next step.”
Rape is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute, with so much weighing on the victim’s account and supporting physical evidence, said Micheala Denny, spokeswoman for Florida Council Against Sexual Violence.
Nationally, for every 100 reported rapes, typically 12 lead to an arrest, nine get prosecuted, five get a felony conviction and only three of those convicted will spend even one day in prison, based on data from the Department of Justice and the FBI.
Almost 9,900 sexual assaults were reported in Florida in 2011, the most recent year for that data. (National statistics suggest that’s fewer than half of how many occurred.)
One of the biggest roadblocks to prosecution, according to a 2011 survey of Florida’s State Attorney’s Offices: lack of physical evidence.
Good Samaritan ER nurse Tara West speaks from experience when she says most nurses don’t know to think beyond the couple pages of instructions on the rape kit that arrives at the hospital with a victim’s advocate.
For example, they might not know to look for bite marks, much less swab the skin near it, West said.
“Without the training, you’re not really thinking I need to preserve this evidence,” said West, who recalls the pressure of gathering evidence while also being responsible for maybe five other ER patients who are ill or injured.
West figures she did about four exams in her career prior to this training. “I didn’t know how to collect evidence, but I did.”
West and her colleagues got 40 hours of training to become Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners – a.k.a. SANE nurses.
While some of her classmates will apply their skills in the emergency rooms at which they work, the county plans to attach some of the graduates to a growing traveling team that goes to the ER where the victim goes.
The team is in its second year – too early to statistically say that their expertise is growing convictions, attorney Scott said.
It is cutting down on emergency room waits, says Sheriff’s Capt. Gregg.
An on-call nurse, who is paid to be on standby when not on her regular job, has an hour to arrive at a hospital.
More often than not, victims are being escorted to a special examination facility centrally located adjacent to Wellington Regional Hospital – the Butterfly House. This is also contributing to the cut in wait times, say the police and advocates working the cases.
The medical exam, the evidence gathering and the taped police interview can all be done there, in relative privacy and without having to get in line behind the guy having a heart attack or the child who needs stitches.
Of 232 sexual assault forensic exams conducted in 2012, nearly two-thirds happened at the Butterfly House, according to Palm Beach County’s Victim Services division.
The traveling team is also clearing another hurdle: tracking down the nurse to prepare for a case.
Often ER nurses are independent contractors, Scott said.
“The nurses move around a lot, they work in Wellington one week and Broward the next. Tracking down a nurse becomes a big issue…I’ve had to jump through all kinds of hoops tracking these nurses down. I’ve had investigators spend all kinds of hours,” Scott said.
But perhaps the biggest benefit is to the victim, said Julie Weil, a mother of two who was raped at knifepoint in 2002 after she and her children were abducted outside her Miami-Dade County church.
Weil, who now lives in Jupiter and was among the chief advocates for the training statewide and Butterfly House locally, was met at the hospital by a SANE nurse in that county.
“These exams take hours, they ask you lots of questions, they take pictures of the most intimate parts of your body in your darkest hour. If it is someone who doesn’t understand, or who minimizes what you’ve been through, it makes you shut down,” said Weil, whose abductor is serving seven life sentences for the crime. “Those first points of contact are so important. You have someone to tell you everything is going to be OK.”