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Handled With Care : At Martin Luther Hospital in Anaheim, young sexual assault victims find a Safe Place, where a specially trained medical staff starts the healing process in the emergency room.

October 27, 1995|KAREN NEWELL YOUNG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Safe Place room is small, meant to feel non-threatening to kids. There are Disney characters on the walls, and stuffed animals to hold. But no decorating scheme can soften the horror of what brings people here: This room at Martin Luther Hospital in Anaheim is set up to treat children following sexual assault.

The 9-year-old girl raped at a park near her Lake Forest home last weekend was brought here by police to be examined and counseled. Officers, meanwhile, began the search for her assailant.

At Safe Place, she was greeted by a nurse and interviewed by a trained specialist, then examined with child-sized equipment designed to assess injury and collect physical evidence.

The post-assault process she went through is one that hundreds of children have undergone at the center since it opened four years ago.

The hospital is the only medical facility in Orange County specifically geared to assisting young sexual assault victims. While Safe Place was designed to serve kids, the need for sexual assault care for adults has been so great that they are also brought here. Of the 43 assault victims examined last month, 18 were children.

Exams and treatment at Safe Place are just the first of many stages involved in the healing process for assault victims, according to experts.

It is a process that involves family members and often specialized counseling to come to terms with what has happened.

"We pride ourselves that when victims arrive here it's the beginning of the healing process," says Elizabeth Grimley, a physician and emergency room medical director at Martin Luther. "And we take it all the way to court. They have to know how to deal with the court system because you can have all the evidence in the world, but if you don't know how to deal with the D.A.'s office or the courts, it may not do you any good."

Grimley says about 30 nurses and five full-time physicians undergo 30 hours of special training to treat sexual assault victims at the center. They must know anatomy, how to collect evidence, how to treat victims compassionately and how to testify in court.

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Most of the victims treated by Safe Place are brought by police as soon as possible after the assault.

"In the case of the Lake Forest girl, they called ahead and said they were en route with a 9-year-old acute rape victim," says Beth Winokur, a registered nurse and department manager of emergency services at the hospital.

Typically, Winokur says, police call ahead and report the time the assault occurred and how long they think it will take to get to the hospital.

"We then call in a medical counselor, and we do a very brief interview, sometimes with the parent, sometimes not," Winokur says. "Usually the younger ones do better with the parents in the room, but sometimes they do better with the parents out of the room, especially if mom keeps crying. They don't want to cause any more grief to their parents."

Winokur says timely exams are important not only to help the victim but to help police in their investigations and court cases. Next to treating the victim, the gathering of evidence is the top priority at the center.

If the exams are not done quickly, the evidence is gone. Damaged tissue heals quickly, and trace evidence--secretions, saliva, finger nail scrapings--is lost. The evidence collected is forwarded to the Orange County Crime Lab and is used to secure convictions.

"These guys who rape are predators," Grimley says. "But they don't rape just one, they rape again. Sometimes you might not have enough evidence to convict after one victim, but the evidence found might help convict for the next one. You can put together a case from several different victims."

The 9-year-old from Lake Forest has been helpful in recounting the incident to help detectives find her assailant, but many kids younger than 9 have trouble doing so, Winokur says. She estimates that about 10% of the cases she sees involve children younger than 9.

"We recently saw a victim as young as 2 months," she says. "We see a lot of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds. For some reason we saw a rash of rapes last July: nine in 34 hours."

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Since opening in October, 1991, the center has handled about 1,200 cases. With backing from the Martin Luther Hospital Foundation, the Hospital Guild and Disneyland, Grimley and Winokur established the center initially to help child abuse victims.

But, as the center evolved and word of its services spread, Safe Place began handling primarily sexual assault cases. It now has about 35 cases each month.

Police decide whether a victim will be taken initially to Safe Place or to one of two county-run examination facilities, one at the Orangewood Children's Home in Orange, and another in a Laguna Hills office park.

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