Your Life, Your Health: Helping victims of sexual assault
Updated: Wednesday, July 16 2014, 11:44 AM EDT
When a victim of sexual assault goes for medical help, where they go for treatment can ultimately mean whether or not the attacker ends up behind bars. The SAFE program (Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners) is available at only some hospital in New York State. This means there are nurses on staff in the emergency department specially trained to treat victims of sexual assault and carefully collect forensic evidence to provide prosecutors.
“Instead of a normal forensic investigation where someone goes out and collects evidence at a crime scene, for these patients sometimes the crime scene is their own body.” Dr. Chame Blackburn says.
Dr. Blackburn is the head of Albany Medical Center’s SAFE program, one of the oldest in the state and the only hospital in the region to have SAFE nurses on the ER floor 24/7. She says time is of the essence in sexual assault cases because evidence is time-sensitive.
“Instead of a patient coming into the emergency department and waiting a long time to be seen, we have on-call examiners who come in and are actually trained in forensic evidence collection and care of sexual assault patients.” Dr. Blackburn explains.
The exam itself is done with a special kit to collect evidence for police and prosecutors. It’s a 15-step kit that all hospitals in New York State are required to have. But Dr. Blackburn adds that in a busy emergency department, if physicians are unfamiliar with complexity of the kit, evidence on a victim (hair, fluid, etc..) could be compromised.
Medications are offered following the exam to treat infections or test for HIV or pregnancy. As with any SAFE program, it is the victim’s decision whether or not to report the crime to the police.
CBS6 reached out to one woman who anonymously acts as an advocate for the SAFE program. A rape victim herself in Albany a few years back, she wishes not to be identified but allowed us to share this quote, encouraging other victims to seek medical treatment and report their crime to prosecutors.
She says: “I chose to report my crime, have a rape kit done, and to go through with a trial through the district attorney’s office. Every single step of that process was difficult but I’m happy with my decisions.”
Dr. Blackburn says SAFE programs are in place at other local hospitals, and while Albany Med offers the only 24/7 service, many people are unaware the program exists. They hope to raise awareness about its importance and how the relationship between hospitals and law enforcement works.