Dallas has long been one of the most woefully ill-equipped large cities in the United States when it comes to dealing with sexual assault. Until recently, only Parkland Hospital was authorized to conduct rape kits for submission into evidence, and there was no free-standing rape crisis center that victims could turn to in the county. At a press conference today, however, activists, law enforcement and medical officials gathered to announce and celebrate a $2-million grant from the W.W. Caruth, Jr. Foundation in support of what they say will be a paradigm shift in Dallas, with the installment of a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program and treatment center at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas.
Previous to Presby's SANE installment, men, women and children victims of sexual assault would have to travel to Parkland in order to be examined for a rape kit that could be admitted into evidence, regardless of where in Dallas County they were attacked or initially treated. That was unacceptable to Courtney Underwood, the 28-year-old SMU grad who's worked for the past eight years to get a SANE program in place in Dallas. At the press conference today, she thanked Dallas District Attorney Craig Watkins for his help in getting SANE in place. In turn, he thanked her, noting that SANE helps increase successful prosecutions of rape cases by 95 percent.
"Not only will Dallas County have a reputation of exonerating innocent people," Watkins told a packed conference room, "We will have a reputation of dispensing justice and protecting victims."
The SANE program has actually been in place at Presby since March, 2009 (as we noted a couple weeks ago) but the Caruth grant announced today will support the construction of "Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE) Suites," where sexual assault victims can get comprehensive, specialized care. A SANE training program -- previously available only in San Antonio and Austin -- will also be in place at Presbyterian.
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Nurses take 180 hours of classroom and clinical training, conducting exams and visiting court proceedings to that they may be maximally effective in presenting evidence to juries. SANE is a service meant not only to help sexual assault victims in the traumatic aftermath of attacks, but also to assist law enforcement in putting rapists behind bars. According to the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center, the typical sexual predator will attack nine people before they're caught.
After the conference, I spoke briefly with SANE Program Coordinator Loren Larkin, R.N., who's worked in emergency nursing for 32 years. Yes, Larkin's a guy, and yes, the vast majority of rape victims are female, but he told me that's never been a problem. "I believe that people need the opportunity to begin healing when they first arrive," he said. Rape victims are classified as level two trauma victims -- a "one" rating is the highest -- and SANE nurses are specially trained to slowly take victims through the steps needed to address medical issues, collect evidence, and begin counseling.
"We have to help them realize that this is not their fault," emphasized Larkin. He told me that SANE nurses work gradually, addressing dire medical issues first, then begin less intrusive evidence gathering and finally proceed on to the "more invasive" parts of the exam. Larkin said the stigma that continues to be associated with sexual assault can make rape kits and exams more difficult, but many victims are relieved to see evidence that "something really did take place."
For the purposes of evidence collection, Larkin said it's best if they can see people in a matter of hours or days, but they'll never turn away someone who's been assaulted. "There is no time limit for us," he told me.