Forensic nurses help ease rape trauma for victims
SALT LAKE CITY — At first, they want to die.
And then forensic nurses such as Monique Turner get to them. She talks to them, asks them about the sexual assault in a safe environment and tends to them — all while collecting the evidence police and attorneys will need to put the perpetrator away. By the time Turner is done, the victims feel like they can face the next day.
"People are ultimately grateful, it's the greatest thing that we can give them," Turner told The Salt Lake Tribune.
Forensic nurses, a specialty created two decades ago by nurses at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing, have the added expertise to document wounds, collect DNA and look for evidence of neglect or abuse, as well as the ability to comfort a sexual assault victim and ultimately testify in court. And nowhere else are they needed more: Utah ranks 19th in the nation for reported forcible rapes, according to the Utah Department of Health. One in three women in the state will experience some kind of sexual assault in her lifetime, and one in eight will be raped, according to the department.
But as vital as their role is to the criminal justice system, it is one the public is relatively unaware of.
subhead: 'The evil that people do'
As an emergency room nurse at University Hospital, Turner had never heard of a forensic nurse until a few years ago when she met one. There are several regional teams of forensic nurses around the state, including one that serves the Salt Lake Valley — Salt Lake Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE). Turner was looking for a little extra money, and with her affinity for "CSI" and familiarity with pelvic exams, she figured it could be a good fit.
Then she got started. Her first case was a woman who had been kidnapped, taken across state lines and been abused the whole way.
"It is really, really hard to see the evil that people do to each other; to listen to how horrible this person was to them," Turner said.
Nationwide, there is a lot of burnout: Almost one out of every two forensic nurses will quit within a year. While a whole team of experts, including law enforcement, victims advocates and a Rape Recovery Center representative step in to help, forensic nurses tend to be the first or second people to interact with victims.
But in the three to four hours the exam takes, the nurses see the transformation.
"Our major job is excellent health care and compassionate initial response. It's that first response a patient gets that has the potential to decide whether they can heal from this traumatic event and whether they stay engaged in the criminal justice system," said Susan Chasson, a forensic nurse on the Salt Lake City team who trains prospective members. "There's so much self-blame (after an assault), if we say 'Oh yeah, it's your fault,' we compound that. When someone has a negative response, that keeps them from telling somebody else for a long time."
subhead: Victims traumatized
Victims are not forced to have the exam in the first place, and at any point, they can decline a specific part of the exam. The nurses do that to give back to them that sense of control that a sexual assault robbed from them.
The victims are clearly traumatized, but spending time with them, supporting them and returning "some of that power to them, they walk out with their head up," said Diane Fuller, who founded the Salt Lake City team. The care does not get rid of their trauma, but it gives them a stronger sense of self, she added.
"We help them realize that they can go on, they don't have to die," Turner said. Few other nursing jobs have such a huge impact on someone, said Turner, who joined the team shortly before Weekley. "This is usually the worst day of their life, forever. It's really, really hard, but the emotional payoff is worth all of the evil nastiness."
And they make sure officers and attorneys have the evidence they need to put that nastiness behind bars.
Salt Lake City police Detective Cody Lougy credits forensic nurses for helping end a high-profile serial date rape investigation he worked several years ago. Azlen Marchet was convicted of sexually assaulting four women in Salt Lake County from 2002 to 2007. He is currently serving 45 years to life in prison.
Forensic nurses also help new officers working their first rape cases — Lougy remembers how nervous he was during his — with their years of expertise, guiding the officer in what to look for based on the evidence they collect.
subhead: These nurses are vital
As vital as they have become, the nurses are a relatively new addition to the crime scene. The specialty only came about 21 years ago, created by nurses at the University of Minnesota School of Nursing. The Salt Lake City-based forensic nurse team formed about 12 years ago.
Before that, a doctor or emergency room nurse would be the one to see to the victim, but more urgent matters like heart attacks would pull their attention away at any time during the long exam. And during the exam itself, doctors would follow the directions on a rape kit, but individual doctors would have different interpretations of the directions, and some were performing the test for the first time, Turner said.
"The community needs simply weren't being met," Fuller said. When she founded the team in 2001, she started off with eight people pulled from all over the place. Now she has 18, and her team is unique to most of the country: they respond to hospitals across the valley instead of being housed in hospitals, which would require the victims to drive to them.
When the nurses start out, they face a lot of intimidation in knowing how to care for a patient in emotional trauma, when before their jobs were focused on the physical.
"It's a very different ball game," said Beth Weekley, who joined the team about six and a half years ago. "Thank goodness we work closely with (the Rape Recovery Center). They're with us on every single case we do. I cannot even imagine doing this without them."
subhead: Called on to testify
Advocates from the Rape Recovery Center work with the nurse during the exam, talking to the victims as well, helping them with paperwork and understanding what comes next and the resources available to them, said Holly Mullen, executive director of the center. She admires the nurses' ability, with the help of evolving technology, to collect evidence even days after the event, and even if the perpetrator left behind no bodily fluids. Most victims strongly want to see resolution in their case, built in part by that evidence.
But when it comes to testimony, the advocate is a "confidential communicator" — they cannot testify in a case. Not so with the nurses. They play a big part in not only objectively relating what they observed in the exam, but also in educating the jury about what that means, Fuller explained.
As much comfort as they bring to the victims, even the forensic nurses need someone to do the same for them. The team has a counselor on hand when a case hits a nurse particularly hard. For Turner, it was when she was examining a girl about her daughter's age. "She had so much in common that it really hit home. The counselor helped me box that up."
Weekley knows just what that is like. Many of the stories they hear are haunting.
"We want to make the world a better place and provide care in a field that not everybody can do," Weekley said. "We take pride in that. It takes a special person to be able to do this job."