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SANE sees progress; more needed

By KALEY CONNER

kconner@dailynews.net

It's been approximately three years since Hays Medical Center launched a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program to help local victims.

It was hoped offering a program in Hays might encourage more victims to have the exam and then choose to prosecute because of the forensic evidence collected. Area officials said the initiative -- initially led by community activists -- seems to be working, but there still is more work to do.

One of the biggest barriers is helping victims, who often struggle with fear and shame, feel comfortable enough to seek help, said Carol Groen, director of HaysMed's SANE program.

"I think more people are learning about the program and are coming out and not being so scared," Groen said.

SANE nurses undergo extensive training, learning how to collect evidence and testify in court, should the patient choose to prosecute. The exam also is important for health reasons, offering STD prevention and treatment for any injuries.

Nurses also are taught how to interact with victims during the traumatic time.

"Psychological support is very important. They have to be sensitive and maintain the dignity of the victims," she said. "The nurses are not here to judge. They're here to help the victim, to collect the evidence, to document what they find to help in the prosecution and begin the healing of the victim."

By the numbers

There were 46 exams at HaysMed last year, an increase from 36 the year before. As of last month, 10 victims had been treated. While the numbers are up, officials said they would be much higher if every victim reported. Estimates from the Ellis County Attorney's office have indicated the majority of sexual assault victims do not report the crime.

"I think sexual assaults in our community, as well as other communities, are under-reported," Groen said. "Those numbers should be much higher."

The numbers are a bit higher at Options Domestic and Sexual Violence Services. The advocacy organization, which covers several northwest Kansas counties, had face-to-face encounters with 66 sexual assault victims in 2012. That number nearly has doubled from the 38 victims who sought help in 2009.

In March, 20 victims already had visited with advocates. Those numbers do not include hotline telephone calls.

"Oftentimes, we hear people say, 'It's horrible that your numbers are going up,' and, 'It's not good,' " said Jennifer Badesire, an outreach service coordinator with Options.

"We just know it's not that it's gone up in how much (sexual assault) is being done. It's that those who are coming for help has. We're thankful that people are reaching out for some help."

In 2012, 12 exams were done as a result of possible crimes in Ellis County, six came from Barton County, five from Pawnee County and four from Russell County. Several counties had three or fewer.

Removing barriers

Collaboration between the agencies involved in sexual assault cases also has increased during the past few years. The main goal in community response efforts is to keep the situation victim-focused. While advocates encourage victims to have a SANE exam and contact law enforcement, everyone involved will respect the patient's decision, said Charlotte Linsner, executive director of Options.

Before the HaysMed program began, victims were transported 90 miles to Salina for the specialized exam, which can take several hours. It's hard to determine if more victims have had the exam in Hays during the past few years, Linsner said, but advocates believe the local option removes a significant barrier.

"We can't prove it, but I would feel comfortable saying they're more likely to say yes to the exam if they know it's closer," she said.

HaysMed sees sexual assault victims from throughout western Kansas. A SANE program previously in Colby no longer is in operation, but Great Bend is in the process of starting one, Groen said.

The Ellis County Attorney's office picks up the tab for SANE exams done as a result of possible crimes committed in Ellis County. In 2012, the office paid for 10 exams at a cost of $725 and had 10 open rape cases and seven separate sexual assault charges.

When it comes to prosecuting suspects, evidence from the SANE exam is invaluable, said Brenda Basgall, an assistant Ellis County attorney.

"A SANE exam doesn't say yes there was a rape, but if somebody says, 'No, I didn't have any type of contact with her,' and if there's any of his DNA on her, it kind of refutes the defense," Basgall said. "I particularly had a case that happened in 2011, and it really was the exam of the SANE that got us to follow through with prosecuting."

In that case, the victim could not remember what had happened, she said, noting the exam indicated there had been an assault.

"The physical evidence the SANE nurses gather is the ace," Hays Police Detective Dave Bunger said about prosecution. "That's the trump card. They're specially trained to gather this and to document this evidence ... and they're very good witnesses."

To help with prosecution efforts, HaysMed recently began offering suspect exams, which are conducted at the request of law enforcement. Two of those exams had been done as of last week, Groen said.

"When you get the victim in and collect the evidence, then (we) can match it with the suspect's right away. It just adds more to the prosecution," she said. "It helps get these perpetrators off the street and helps keep the community safer."