New program at Vail Health Hospital makes sexual assault nurse examiners available to victims | VailDaily.com

New program at Vail Health Hospital makes sexual assault nurse examiners available to victims

Melanie Wong
Special to the Daily

EAGLE COUNTY — A new program at Vail Health Hospital aims to provide help and medical care to assault victims when they may need it most — as soon as possible after an assault.

The hospital's sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE) are specially trained registered nurses who can provide medical and forensic care, as well as counseling and legal resources, to people who have experienced sexual assault or abuse. The program is free of charge, and patients don't need an appointment — they can simply walk in to Vail Health's emergency department.

The goal of the SANE program is to provide education and resources in times of crisis and ultimately increase reporting to law enforcement of assault crimes, said Sarah Drew, Vail Health director of emergency services.

"The program is for anyone who sustains sexual or physical assault in any way. They can come to the hospital and be evaluated for physical harm and get emotional support," she said. "SANE nurses collect evidence in a timely and objective manner that would meet federal and state guidelines of forensic information."

“It’s crucially important that we have a SANE program here in town. When people are victims, especially of sexual assault, they’re physically, mentally and emotionally injured. Without knowing where to turn, they’re further victimized.”Sarah DrewVail Health director of emergency services.

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SANE help

Medical care provided by the SANE nurse can include tests and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and treatment for any other injuries, regardless of insurance status. That forensic information can be passed on to law enforcement if the patient chooses, but reporting the crime to police is not required. In the case that the person presses charges, authorities then have admissible evidence (hair, bodily fluids, photographs, clothing) that could help lead to prosecution.

SANE nurses can also connect patients with partner organizations such as victim advocate services, the Bright Future Foundation, counseling or law enforcement. Currently, Vail has three SANE-trained nurses, who are available on most weekends and evenings. If a SANE nurse is not available for a patient, then the hospital will help arrange for transport and care at Summit County's St. Anthony Summit Medical Center, which has a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week program.

Drew said the hospital became aware of the need for a SANE program a few years ago. Getting the program up and running took a couple of years and was made possible with money raised by Vail Health's volunteer corp. Vail's SANE program opened for patients at the beginning of the summer, with hopes to further expand those services and hours in the future.

Part of SANE's services include outreach and education in the community so people know the hospital has resources for assault victims. Historically, the hospital has seen few assault cases in the emergency department, yet the county's crime statistics show that many more assaults occur than are reported. Drew said the hospital hopes to help change that trend.

Vail's program is among a couple of others in the rural mountains, where such services can be difficult for victims to access. Until Vail's program started at the beginning of this year, the closest SANE programs were in Summit County and Rifle.

"It's crucially important that we have a SANE program here in town," Drew said. "When people are victims, especially of sexual assault, they're physically, mentally and emotionally injured. Without knowing where to turn, they're further victimized.

"That's why we want to be able to treat these patients in the emergency department without it being a financial burden or a drive over the pass for them. We hope it will combat underreporting of these assaults and the victim blaming and shaming that goes with it."

Under-reported crime

In the United States, one out of five women and one in 71 men will be raped in their lifetime, reports the National Sexual Violence Resource Center from data compiled from the Department of Justice.

Yet statistics also show that rape and other forms of sexual assault are the most under-reported crimes. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network and the Department of Justice, only 344 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to the police. The reporting rate for child sexual abuse is even lower, with only one out of every 10 assaults reported.

Those concerning numbers are applicable to Eagle County, too, said Deena Ezzell, victim services coordinator for the Eagle County Sheriff's Office. Last year, Eagle County law enforcement served more than 80 victims of sexual assault, and there are others that go unreported, she said.

"It's a myth in our society that if someone is raped, they will immediately pick up the phone and call the police. That's not usually how it works," Ezzell said. "The traumatized brain is so overwhelmed it kind of shuts down to protect itself. Things like the possibility of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection hasn't occurred to them yet. For some victims, only when some time has passed are they able to think of going to get medical treatment."

Ezzell adds that many assaults are perpetrated by someone known to the victim, so they may be hesitant to go to the police. Shame, disbelief or fear that people won't believe them can also keep people from reporting the crime or seeking help. Before Vail started its SANE program, the thought of driving over a pass, possibly in winter weather, could be even more of a deterrent for victims, she said.

Even with reported assaults, these cases are hard to prosecute. However, the work of SANE nurses can make a prosecution more likely through the collection of evidence.

"SANE nurses are a critical component of holistic care for someone that has been victimized. I use the verb 'for' purposefully. It's not who they are, it's what has happened to them," Ezzell said. "Vail Health has been working hard for a couple of years now to get a SANE program up and running smoothly. We look forward to working with them in any capacity that will help crime victims."

Resources for victims of assault

• Law enforcement: Call 911 or one of the following numbers:

Eagle County Sheriff’s Office: 970-328-8500

Avon Police Department: 970-748-4040

Eagle Police Department: 970-328-6351

Vail Police Department: 970-479-2200

Vail Public Safety Communications Center: 970-479-2201

• Eagle County victims’ advocates: Call 970-328-8539

• Sexual assault nurse examiners at Vail Health: Walk-in services are available at the Vail hospital emergency department or by calling 970-479-7225

• Bright Future Foundation: Services are free and confidential. Call the 24-hour hotline at 970-949-7086.