The way a rape victim is treated by hospitals immediately after she is attacked plays a crucial role in bringing the rapist to justice, health officials say.
Often, the treatment is insensitive and slow, with rape victims placed in crowded emergency rooms. The result, the officials say, leaves such a bad taste that women are sometimes reluctant to rely on large bureaucratic systems to bring the rapist to justice.
A group in San Diego is trying to change that. It is offering rape victims a way of treatment that officials hope will handle women with sensitivity and efficiency, and keep them involved in pursuing their attackers through the court system.
Most San Diego County rape victims wait hours in a crowded room before being examined for evidence by an emergency room doctor who is already under a lot of pressure. A woman can be made to feel the victim all over again because her rape is not considered a life-threatening medical emergency.
The San Diego County Regional Sexual Assault Evidentiary Examination Task Force hopes to change the system by forming rape response teams throughout the county.
The teams, consisting of specially trained nurses and rape counselors, would be on call 24 hours a day and would examine women in a specially designated area after she arrives at the hospital.
"If they (rape victims) know they don't have to go through a long wait at a hospital, and there's a team there sensitive to their needs, they will be more likely to report it," said Laurie Mackenzie, a member of the task force and also director of the rape crisis center at the Center for Women's Studies and Services. "That has to help the prosecutability of a case."
Task force member and Deputy Dist. Atty. Robert Sullivan praises the concept of training nurses to perform post-rape evidentiary examinations.
"We haven't had cases compromised that were handled in the emergency room, but the emergency room doctor has other priorities," Sullivan said. "You get more adequate detail from a nurse practitioner than from a high-pressured physician. It's important that exams be conducted in a timely manner, because evidence is lost the longer you wait."
The task force is composed of representatives from the district attorney's office, County Health Services, the Social Services Department, the Sheriff's Department, local police departments and women's centers.
County Supervisor Susan Golding, chairwoman of the task force, said the group's main responsibility is to make recommendations to the County Board of Supervisors, hospitals and law enforcement agencies that would help establish the teams. The task force has up to 3 1/2 months to make recommendations, and will meet to discuss measures for establishing the teams.
The task force was formed after a Rancho Santa Fe rape victim had to wait nine hours for a post-rape evidentiary examination because two local hospitals refused to administer it, Golding said. "It is absolutely unconscionable that a woman would wait nine hours for an evidentiary examination," she said.
Golding said she doesn't foresee significant financial obstacles in implementing the teams countywide. The examinations are paid for by either law enforcement agencies or by the local government where the rape occurs. The task force is more concerned with emergency room overload and the lack of training emergency room physicians receive in administering evidentiary examinations, Golding said.
The task force aims to establish Sexual Assault Response Teams at the six local hospitals that now administer post-rape evidentiary examinations in the emergency room. A response team at Pomerado Hospital in North County is its model. Rape victims there are seen in a private room by a trained nurse and a victim advocate, who acts as a counselor, giving emotional support to the woman through her examination and beyond. A police officer or sheriff is also present during the examination to handle the legalities.
"We need to make sure that the victim isn't victimized again by the system," said Patti Seneski, Pomerado's response team coordinator. "We (at Pomerado Hospital) feel the victims are getting excellent care. This is an environment that should feel very safe and nurturing." The hospital has handled 25 rape cases since the program began Sept. 1, she said.
The Pomerado program is modeled after one in Santa Cruz County, where felony charges increased 78% the year after the teams were established in 1987.
If the teams are implemented countywide, they will be overseen by the management of the individual hospital. And because many task force members are representatives of designated team hospitals, officials believe a lot of the work has already been done.