When former BW Editor Pamela White heard about a teenager who was sexually assaulted and then had to stay in an emergency room waiting area for hours before being seen, she was horrified.
Some counties are lucky enough to have a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program, in which rape victims receive prompt, thorough and supportive care by trained professionals, but Boulder County was not one of them.
White recalls making a conscious decision to describe in graphic terms what it must be like for a rape victim to have to wait in the ER after being violated. She paints a picture of a woman sitting there while other victims with more serious injuries are helped first. The opening of the article serves as a jarring wake-up call about a problem that most people aren’t aware of.
“They’ve told her she can’t pee — or eat, drink or brush her teeth,” White wrote in her fictionalized account of the experience. “She can’t change her clothes. She can’t take a shower. The advocate has explained that doing so would destroy evidence that has the potential to put her attacker in prison. And so she waits, her mind veering between disbelief and panic, aware of every place the rapist touched her, fighting nausea and tears, feeling his semen in her crotch, steeped in his stink.”
When she does finally see a doctor, he is reluctant to help her due to fear of having to testify in court, and he has never done a rape kit, so the exam is incredibly invasive, and the victim feels violated again.
White says there are many reasons why it is important to be seen by a sexual assault nurse examiner after a rape occurs. Victims are seen quickly and privately in a quiet setting separate from the hospital and its ER full of car wreck victims and drunks and crying babies. There are shower facilities there and toiletries, even donated clothes. Victims are made to feel as comfortable as they can be, given the circumstances, and highly trained forensic nurses can often collect crucial evidence that runof-the-mill doctors and nurses can’t, which has a bearing on whether the perpetrator is ultimately brought to justice. (White says sexual assault nurse examiners are used to collect evidence in domestic violence cases and other crimes, like the 1997 murder of Susannah Chase, a case that was eventually solved and resulted in conviction of a man whose DNA matched semen found inside Chase.)
In her article, White also examines what happened to the SANE program that Boulder County used to have. It was in existence from 1997 to 1999, when it folded after a conflict with the district attorney’s office over questions raised about the quality of one nurse examiner’s work resulted in all but one nurse examiner resigning.
The closest SANE program was in Westminster, but some agencies, including the CU police department, chose to drive victims the extra distance.
White’s story had an immediate impact. The article prompted a man — who never wanted to see his daughter experience something like White described — to write a check for $30,000 to the local organization Moving to End Sexual Assault (MESA) in an effort to jump-start a new SANE program for the county.
White laments that while several meetings were held to plan the new facility, it was ultimately deemed unviable.
The story also had another effect, White says. It prompted her to write a subsequent column in which she announced for the first time publicly that she herself had once been sexually assaulted.