Visiting the ER After Sexual Assault: What You Can Expect and Why You Won’t Be Alone
When living though a traumatic event, a proper support system can help you keep hold of your emotional and physical health. If you’ve been sexually assaulted, a team of compassionate medical and law enforcement professionals, which make up your county’s SART (Sexual Assault Response Team), are always here to help.
For some, coming forward with such an experience can feel uncomfortable or intimidating, but there are many reasons to do so. Kristine Hunt, Nurse Manager of Emergency Services at Jefferson Washington Township Hospital; Eileen Caraker, Gloucester County SART and Forensic Nurse Examiner Coordinator; and Lieutenant Stacie Lick, head of Gloucester County’s Special Victims Unit (SVU), uncover the physical, emotional and legal importance of visiting the hospital after a sexual assault.
Eileen, a certified Forensic Nurse Examiner with 20+ years of experience, began her career as an Emergency Department (ED) Nurse. After realizing that treatment protocol for sexual assault victims needed improved organization and specialized professionals, she assisted in the establishment of Gloucester County’s Forensic Nurse Examiner Program.
“The beauty of having a forensic nursing program, and why I’m so passionate about it, is the one-on-one treatment of patients,” explained Eileen. “You can dedicate your time and full concentration to them. After such a crime, it’s important to provide comforting, private care that focuses on consent and confidentiality. It’s the right thing to do.”
Kristine, who has been an ED nurse for 15 years and works closely with Eileen, added: “We have a separate quiet room for their care under the forensic nurse here at Jefferson Washington Township Hospital. Empathy is vital when treating someone who’s been traumatized; we don’t want them sitting in a room full of strangers.”
In the Washington Township ED, which sees both pediatric and adult sexual assault cases, Kristine is at the starting line.
“Once the patient is triaged, we’ll ask their consent to call in forensic nurses,” said Kristine. “The ED staff will only gather basic medical information and assure the patient is medically cleared. We know that Eileen can provide the best possible care moving forward.”
Eileen and her team of 10 FN-CSAs (forensic nurse – certified sexual assault) are an integral part of the SART team, which also includes trained rape care advocates, such as SERV (Services Empowering Rights of Victims), and local law enforcement.
“The SART team is multi-purpose. We provide medical treatment, comfort and assistance through counseling services, as well as properly investigate and prosecute crimes against children and adults,” explained Lt. Lick, who has been on the force for 19 years and head of the SVU since its establishment in January.
The forensic nurses will take a detailed history of the assault; collect any and all appropriate specimens from a forensic medical exam; and photograph injuries, if any. They will also ask consent for the involvement of SERV and law enforcement.
“A clear understanding of what happened will allow the entire SART team to better care for the victim,” explained Eileen. “While the exam is needed to collect concrete evidence, it also plays an important role in reassuring the patient that their body is okay – that they’ve lived through this. Even though there are often no injuries, it’s common to still fear for their well-being.”
Another reason why it’s so important to go to the hospital soon after you’ve been assaulted is possible STD exposure. If medication is required, it can be administered by an ED nurse as soon as possible.
“Today, everything we document is without doubt evidence and has a clear chain of custody to law enforcement, because I never had to leave the case,” said Eileen.
“If the victim moves forward with the criminal justice process, the SART team offers services outside of the hospital to help them through it,” continued Lt. Lick. “In addition, SVU detectives specialize in investigating sex abuse cases and interviewing those who have been traumatized. The interview can be the most important part, and is done at our Child Advocacy Center (CAC).”
The CAC of Gloucester County, which opened in September 2017, is a safe, child-focused space away from the courts where possible suspects may be. Here, a victim may receive case management, therapy and other advocacy services.
Keep in mind, there are no simple measures to overcome the psychological impact of sexual assault. Even after the assistance of medical care, law enforcement and counselors, it takes time and continued support. If someone close to you is recovering from sexual assault, lend a hand and help them through the proper precautions. This is a rough road that no one expects, or deserves, to travel.