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Hospitals providing safe spaces to help sex abuse victims

Benita Zahn
Updated: November 21, 2019 06:31 PM
Created: November 21, 2019 06:30 PM

There have been many effects of the #MeToo movement.  One of them appears to be a greater likelihood a female who's been sexually abused will seek treatment.

Local hospitals have been refining the care they provide to insure a supportive, safe environment for victims.

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However, law enforcement hasn't seen an uptick in reports of abuse.

So where's the disconnect and what does that mean for care and safety? NewsChannel 13 went to get answers.

Hospitals are supposed to be safe havens to seek care, but too often, victims of sexual assault are afraid to walk through the door.

"They're afraid of what people are going to think of them," said Michelle Pasquarell, RN, BSN | Certified ED Nurse, Saratoga Hospital.

"A lot of times, the patients feel that people aren't going to believe them," said Nancy Harris, NP, the manager of the Forensic Nursing Program at St. Peter's Health Partners.

To change that perception, a growing number of hospitals now employ sexual assault nurse examiners, or SANE for short. Their mission is to make sexual assault victims see the hospital as a safe place for care and support.

"It starts from the moment that they're met at the front door on how, you know, once they feel that they are empowered to be able to come in and get the care that they deserve, it helps with their healing," said Harris.

Identify as a sexual assault victim when you walk in and you are ushered to a separate area dedicated for your care. These people are greeted by a SANE staffer or someone trained in the specific needs of these victims.

"They need to know that there's services available for them. They need to know that there's support in the community and that sometimes there's a light at the end of the tunnel," said Pasquarell.

If a hospital doesn't have SANE on staff, they may have access to trained medical professionals via telemedicine. St. Peter's has a program providing the service to four rural communities.

Nathan Littauer Hospital in Gloversville is part of this.

"They can call us and we will actually help them all the way through the exam, so we're there for the three to four hours," said Harris.

The need for this specialized care is growing, perhaps because of the #MeToo movement, the number of people – women, children, and men seeking care – has been increasing.

"In 2019 so far, we've seen 234 patients – and we're only in the end of August, so we still have a couple more months left of the year," said Kaylin Dawson, RN, BSN | SANE, Albany Medical Center. "In 2018, we saw 243 patients of all ages."

A similar increase is reported at St. Peter's Hospital and Saratoga Hospital. Although the total number of patient victims presenting for care in Saratoga is much smaller.

"I don't necessarily think that the crime is occurring more, I just think that more people are talking about it," said Dawson.

However, that's not translating into more reporting of this crime.

NewsChannel 13 asked Harris out of all the people coming through the door how many actually file a police report.

"Very few. I would probably say 1 in 20," she replied.

NewsChannel 13 checked with sheriffs across the Capital Region. The figures they're reporting are mixed. Rensselaer, Saratoga, Fulton, and Washington counties say they have seen an increase over the past two to three years. However, that's not the case in Albany, Montgomery, Warren, Schenectady, and Schoharie counties, where reporting has held steady.

Greene and Columbia counties didn't reply to NewsChannel 13's repeated requests for information.

So why wouldn't a victim of sexual assault make that report?

"Afraid of what people are going to think of them. They're afraid – sometimes it's intimate partner, they don't know where they're going to go, what they're going to do," said Pasquarelli.

"They don't want to involve law enforcement. They don't want to tell their story over and over again," said Dawson.

However, they no longer have to tell their story immediately. New York law recently changed. Now the evidence kit must be kept for 20 years. Before this, hospitals only had to keep the kits for 30 days.

This change gives victims time to process what's happened to them and bring charges at a later time if they choose to do so.

To accommodate the change, local hospitals have added refrigerators to preserve the kits until the state assumes responsibility. The timing of that transfer is still being sorted out. More details are expected by year's end.

However, time remains critical for accessing treatment.

"Because the sooner we collect evidence before you shower, brush your teeth, change your clothes, we're more apt to get more DNA," said Pasquarell.

Also, medication to prevent sexually transmitted diseases can be started.

To facilitate this and accommodate the victim, the designated area in the hospital often has showers and donated clothing.

Albany Med partners with UAlbany to fill clothing and toiletry bags to send the person home with.

"We are seeing children, adolescents, and adults, probably seeing more young children, I think, than we have seen in the past," said Ann Marie Cross, RN | Nursing Director at Saratoga Hospital.

Although authorities won't be called if an adult prefers not to have them involved, when it's a child, the call must be made - that's the law.

However, a child can seek care without their parent or guardian.

"It gives them a sense of control from the moment they disclose that something's happened to them," said Dawson.

The goal is helping them begin the healing process – and when appropriate, find a safe environment.

"I just want patients to know that they can come and get the care that they need," said Harris


Copyright 2019 - WNYT-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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