Plan to aid victims of sex assault; Nurses are trained to gather evidence, help in prosecution; Goal is to convict abusers; Hospital program also aimed at cases of domestic violence


Victims of domestic violence or sexual assaults in Carroll County should soon benefit from a new hospital program that uses nurses trained to examine battered or abused women, preserve forensic evidence and become expert witnesses for the state in prosecuting offenders, authorities say.

Five nurses at Carroll County General Hospital have completed training to become a Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE), said Janet Steakin, one of the nurses who has been trained.

"October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and it's fitting that last October we attended the SAFE training conference, and we are just about ready to begin it here," Steakin said.

The concept for the program, which is sponsored by Mercy Medical Center and the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Department of Emergency Services, is not new. North Arundel Hospital has had SAFE nurses since May 1997, but Steakin said the Carroll program will also address victims of domestic violence and hopes within a few years to include assistance for children abused sexually and physically.

Domestic violence cases investigated by the state's attorney's office in Carroll County dipped to 361 last year, down from 417 and 425 in 1996 and 1997, said prosecutor Hope E. Hancock of the state's attorney's domestic violence unit. Through August, the unit had handled 321 domestic violence cases.

"SAFE is a terrific program for gathering and preserving evidence that could help convict abusers," Hancock said.

As soon as hospital officials complete and adopt a written policy for the SAFE program, it will be implemented, said Stephanie Smith, a hospital spokeswoman.

Until then, Steakin said, emergency room doctors will continue making physical examinations of sexual assault or domestic violence victims.

Training regimen

Staff nurses Linda Feemster, Joyce Kriemer, Kay Nakielny and Debi Spangler joined Steakin in completing the six-day training conference. The group then began clinical training -- traveling to the Baltimore Police Department crime lab, where they learned about DNA evidence and how crime lab technicians collect and use it in prosecutions.

The group also met with police agencies in Carroll County, prosecutors from the state's attorney's office and members of the county's Child Abuse Sexual Assault unit.

"They learned what we could do, and we learned what they need to build a case," Steakin said.

Administrators at Carroll County General have supported the group's efforts, she said. Staff doctors provided training in performing pelvic examinations, and lab technicians taught the nurses how to make slides and examine potential evidence with a microscope, she said.

The program will be overseen by Dr. Michael Carr, a member of the hospital staff, Steakin said.

Treating patients will remain a top priority, meaning injuries such as fractures and lacerations will be dealt with first.

If a doctor or nurse becomes aware that sexual or domestic assault might be the reason for the injuries, a SAFE nurse will be called to provide the patient with information on available services, Steakin said.

Gather evidence

"The battered or abused patient must want to press criminal charges and allow us to perform a physical examination if one is needed to gather forensic evidence," she said.

Steakin, who has worked at Carroll County General for 18 of her 29 years as a registered nurse, said victims of sexual or domestic violence are traumatized when they go to an emergency room for treatment.

"Examinations under such circumstances can be traumatic and, since most doctors in the ER are men, that's the last thing someone who has been sexually assaulted wants, a man performing an examination," Steakin said.

Culminating a series of twice-a-month meetings, the group began two weeks ago to work a rotating, on-call schedule, meaning at least one of the five SAFE nurses will be available at all times, "24 hours a day and 365 days a year," Steakin said.

"At least three other nurses have already expressed an interest in being trained," she said. "That, of course, would take some of the burden off" the five SAFE nurses.

Pub Date: 10/05/99

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