By Sharna Johnson: CNJ staff writer
July and August saw a rise in sexual assault examinations performed in Curry County, but officials say they don’t match the number of reported criminal cases.
There were 13 exams performed by Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners in the two-month period — compared with 12 conducted in the first half of the year, SANE Administrator Amber Hamilton said.
Three more were performed in September, she said, bringing the year’s total to 28.
Local law enforcement records do not reflect the same trend in reported cases. Clovis police took six reports of sexual assault during July and August, and neither the Curry County Sheriff’s Department nor the New Mexico State Police reported any for the area.
Hamilton said one reason for the disparity in numbers is often victims are not ready to report their experience to law enforcement. SANE nurses encourage victims to go through an exam so evidence can be preserved if they feel comfortable coming forward later, she said.
It is a dynamic that concerns some law enforcement members. Curry County Sheriff Roger Hatcher believes law enforcement should be involved when a situation prompting an exam arises.
A victim’s body is not the only crime scene in an assault, he said, and if a victim waits weeks or months to make a report, other evidence can be compromised as a result of tampering, age and other interference.
“To preserve evidence, they need to have law enforcement involved — it needs to be a combined effort. We understand (victim reluctance to report), but if they wait two hours, that’s two hours of delay that the suspect has to destroy evidence, to clean things up and to get away essentially. (The physical evidence on the victim’s body) is a very, very small part of a case as far as the criminal case is concerned,” he said.
“Half of them (victims) wait maybe 24 to 48 hours before they ever report. Then there’s the percent that occur that we never hear about,” he explained.
Hamilton said details of an exam are confidential and information obtained by the exam is not placed in a victim’s medical files. Evidence collected with a sexual assault examination kit is stored under lock and key until a victim is ready to report, Hamilton said.
Items such as clothing, medical swabs and samples are then turned over to law enforcement for processing by a crime lab.
Exams are conducted at the request of victims or a parental guardian, Hamilton said. Specially trained nurses are on call 24 hours a day and respond to the call of emergency responders, hospital staff or law enforcement officers.
A nonprofit entity funded by grant money, the SANE program exists to help victims in the aftermath of an assault, Hamilton said. While they are mindful of the criminal process and trained for evidentiary collection, their primary goal is to assist victims.
If a victim wants to report, SANE nurses guide them to the correct channels and can facilitate a relationship with victims advocates from the courts. Additional resources and medical guidance are given to help them, she said.
Mostly it’s about providing victims a safe, private way to begin the healing process.
“We aren’t here to prove that rape happened. We’re here to help the victims after such a traumatic event, but we do have the legal process in mind — we work closely with the district attorney’s office and victims advocates,” Hamilton said.
“We try to empower the victim to regain power and control, to get them into a safe place where they no longer feel threatened.”