By Darrell Todd Maurina
Sexual assault victims in eastern New Mexico have a new place to turn for help. Plains Regional Medical Center in Clovis has organized the state’s fifth Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Unit and has a staff of seven nurses and one doctor who have received special training to help victims of rape, incest, or other sexual abuse.
Participants emphasized that a decision to come to the hospital is not the same as a decision to seek criminal prosecution.
“We are not there to make any judgments, we are just there to collect evidence to be used later in making a determination,” said Mary Colleen Campbell, one of the program nurses.
Except when required by law in such cases as rapes of juveniles, mentally or physically handicapped adults, or rapes by persons in positions of authority, the collected evidence is not turned over to police without the request of the victim, officials said. The special unit maintains records separate from those of the hospital to maintain confidentiality for rape victims. Unit staff said even if victims choose not to seek prosecution, the unit can assist by providing medical care and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases.
Quickly preserving and collecting evidence is critical to make a prosecution stick, said nurse Melissa Tokarski. However, many victims are disgusted by the sexual assault and do things that make prosecution harder.
“Sometimes when people have been raped, the first thing they do is brush their teeth 25 times or wash their clothes or take a shower,” Tokarski said. “They need to know they need to preserve evidence, and if they have taken off their clothes or left them at home or thrown them away, they need to know we need them.”
When sexual assault victims come to Plains Regional Medical Center, they will be met by a nurse who has received more than 160 hours of specialized training, including 60 hours of classroom instruction and 100 hours of practical education including 40 hours of training on how to testify in court. That specialized training is designed to avoid problems that sometimes discouraged rape victims from reporting their assaults in the past.
“People don’t realize how difficult it is to get people to come in,” said Campbell.
Anna Randall, nursing director for the special unit, told the nurses a story of how one rape victim had been treated at another location. According to Randall, the victim had to wait six hours in the emergency room and then had a group of medical students ask to watch because they had never seen a sexual assault examination before.
Part of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Unit’s task will be to work with law enforcement.
“The DA has asked us to develop a four-hour program to educate the different police units on what we do and how we do it,” Randall said. “We are going to start with the Portales Police Department and we would like to have as many of us there as possible so they can get to know us.”
Education will also be a key part of the unit’s work, the nurses said.
“We are trying to provide competent and compassionate care,” said nurse Sherri McCarty. “(Police) need to understand that the reaction of the patient does not determine the validity of whether they were assaulted or not.”