Sexual Assault Response Teams Ready to Respond

Sexual assault response teams (SART) are in place in Talbot and Dorchester Counties, ensuring that survivors receive immediate, accessible and comprehensive services by trained and caring professionals.

“The goal of working jointly as a SART is to implement a coordinated approach using nationally recognized protocols to report, investigate and prosecute sexual abuse crimes while minimizing the trauma for victims when they seek assistance,” says Devin Trinkley, RN, FNE-A/P, a Shore Health System nurse with specialized training in pediatric, adolescent and adult forensic medicine.

It was Trinkley’s work as a staff nurse in the emergency department of The Memorial Hospital at Easton and as coordinator of the Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) nurse program for Shore Health System that led her to meet with outside agencies in the community to launch the SART program. In partnership with For All Seasons, a community mental health clinic and rape crisis center, Trinkley formed the first SART team in Talbot County in November of 2006. The second SART, this one for Dorchester County, was formed in April of 2008.

A SART is a multidisciplinary group made up, at minimum, of a SAFE nurse and hospital emergency department staff, who medically assess and treat victims while collecting and documenting evidence of the assault; a law enforcement officer, who conducts an investigation and provides emergency assistance to the victim; a victim advocate, who provides emotional support to the victim; and a prosecuting attorney, who oversees the legal process. Depending upon the case, other community agencies may provide care and services, such as emergency medical services (EMS) responders; child, juvenile and adult protective services; and the local health department.

“Overall, bringing these disciplines together on a regular basis provides a far greater degree of dialogue and cooperation in each case, which benefits the victim and increases the rate of prosecution,” says Richard Goldstein, executive director of For All Seasons. “As victim advocates, our role begins at the first call from the ER. We provide ongoing crisis counseling, longer-term therapy and court accompaniment for victims during proceedings as well.”

The prosecution rate for sexual assault cases that progressed through the Talbot County SART rose from 42 percent to 69 percent during the first full year it was monitoring cases. Trinkley and the SART members attribute this increase to the coordinated team response which resulted in better victim support, better investigations and better prosecutions. Under Trinkley’s leadership, the goal has been set to have SARTs in place across the Mid-Shore with the addition of Caroline, Kent and Queen Anne’s counties by year-end 2008.

“The consistency and coordination between community agencies and departments working as a SART has clearly strengthened the response to sexual assault victims, and provides beneficial assistance and resource availability for them,” says Lieutenant Jerry Jones, Commander, Maryland State Police.

Sexual assault is one of the most under-reported violent crimes. One reason victims avoid seeking the urgent care they need is that a hospital visit will set in motion a legal investigation.

This process will soon change for women and men who are victims of sexual assault when the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) goes into effect on January 5, 2009. VAWA provides funding for women’s shelters and law enforcement training and requires all states to offer victims the option to receive medical care under the “Jane Doe” provision of the act. This section of the federal mandate ensures that victims of sexual assault are no longer required to participate in a law enforcement investigation in order to undergo a forensic medical exam and receive treatment and counseling.

“When treating victims of sexual assault and abuse, forensic nurse examiners collect evidence that will be used by police and prosecutors,” says Chris Mitchell, MSN, RN, Director of Outpatient and Emergency Services for Shore Health System. “While we will continue to provide all the necessary exams and medical care, the information we collect will now be sealed without any data that identifies the victim.”

Mitchell continues, “In the event that the victim chooses not to pursue the matter through law enforcement within a three-month period, Shore Health System will notify the appropriate authorities that the case is closed, while maintaining confidential medical records through our SAFE program.”

Shore Health System’s hospital-based, certified SAFE nurses implemented the “Jane Doe” or anonymous reporting of sexual assault on October 1 in order to ensure full compliance in advance of the January, 2009 federal mandate. When a victim of sexual assault comes to the emergency departments of Memorial Hospital and Dorchester General Hospital, a forensic examination will be conducted to document any physical injuries, advocacy services will be initiated and medical treatment will be provided. This service is available seven days a week, around the clock.

“Each and every person in our community deserves to feel safe, valued and cared for,” says Trinkley. “We want victims and potential victims of sexual assault to know that local organizations are prepared and able to respond well with an immediate, compassionate and comprehensive response that may aid in their healing.”