When a victim of sexual assault on the central Kenai Peninsula gathers the courage to report the crime, she faces one more challenge. To get evidence from her body in a sexual assault investigation, Alaska State Troopers, Kenai Police or Soldotna Police ask trained sexual assault nurse examiners to help them. Lately, that has meant bringing the victim to South Peninsula Hospital in Homer, an hour or more drive.
"You're asking the victim to be transported 75 miles," said Sgt. Jim Hibpshman, head of the Homer Post for Trooper E Detachment.
That situation will change by the end of the year, when the Sexual Assault Response Team returns to the central peninsula after a three-year absence, said Colleen James, coordinator of the Kenai Peninsula SART. Equipment is being installed for nurses to work out of a clinic in Soldotna.
The SART program started in Homer in 1994 under the direction of James and the late Karen Willows. South Peninsula Hospital used to run the program. James now coordinates SART through Central Peninsula General Hospital in Soldotna. SPH pays part of James' salary to CPGH under a joint operating agreement.
A SART exam collects forensic evidence important to an investigation of sexual assault or sexual abuse. James said nurses have the same role as other criminal investigators.
"Part of our job is to help with public safety. You don't want people to be wrongly accused," James said. "We're not working for or against law enforcement. We're gathering evidence.
"We need to be an objective part of the process."
SART is called in when a sexual assault is reported to any of the peninsula law enforcement agencies. Victims can have their families or counselors with women's services present during the exam. Nurses treat the victim's body as a crime scene and look for evidence like hairs, fibers, dirt or body fluids.
"The problem is, it's a living walking, crime scene," James said. "Whoever you're working on is your patient. You're going to provide the best care possible."
Nurses also photograph the victim for bruises, cuts or other injuries. Victims often first report an assault to emergency room physicians or nurses and are treated for any injuries from the assault, James said. They also receive treatment and counseling for other issues resulting from the assault, such as sexually transmitted diseases.
SART brings together police, sexual assault nurse examiners, doctors and advocates to help the victim.
"When everybody responds together, the victim isn't telling the story eight different times," said Peg Coleman, executive director of South Peninsula Women's Services (SPWS). "It's an excellent community response."
The equipment being in-stalled in Soldotna includes a TeleHelp link, an encrypted computer conferencing network that connects nurses on the central peninsula with more experienced sexual assault nurse examiners elsewhere. James said six nurses are being trained. Two currently are certified as sexual assault nurse examiners.
Coleman said there aren't enough sexual assault nurse examiners locally and nationally.
"It's difficult to recruit somebody to do that," she said. "You're not seeing humanity at its best."
Clinical training in areas without frequent sexual assaults can be difficult, James said.
"It's not something where you can attend a class and become an expert," she said. "There are many variables."
One of the variables is the age and sex of the victims. Not all victims are adult women, James said. Some victims are elderly women. Many are boys or girls, some as young as 3 years old. About half the victims examined by SART nurses on the peninsula are minors under age 18, she said. In the first half of 2004, the average victim age was 7 years, 3 months old.
"Children are vulnerable whether male or female," James said. "Really what you're seeing is children that are being preyed upon."
Male-on-male sexual assault gets reported for boys up to about age 12, she said. After that age, boys and men tend not to report.
"With males, sexuality gets called into question," James said. "Males have an extra stigma."
Women's services rarely gets calls from boys or men reporting sexual assault, Coleman said. She said she understands how the name of the organization could lead some males to believe they can't get help through SPWS, but that's not the case. SPWS advocates for male victims, too, Coleman said.
Teenage girls at about age 14 are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault, James said. Girls at that age start to have more freedom and test that freedom. They get themselves in situations where they don't know better, such as their first experience with alcohol. They drink and get taken advantage of, she said. While other drugs are used to commit sexual assault, James said alcohol is by far the most used drug.
"It happens over and over," James said. "It's been that way since we opened the program."
Homer started the first SART, and for two years was the only program in the state. Since 1996, SARTs outside of the Kenai have been established in Anchorage, Fairbanks, Bethel, Nome, Kodiak, Sitka, Ketchikan and Dillingham. SARTs are funded through programs like the Violence Against Women Act. The U.S. Senate recently appropriated $2.7 million for a SART in Anchorage.
Hibpshman said troopers pay for SART exams conducted as part of a trooper investigation.
"We're not going to tell victims, 'You're going to pay for this out of your own pocket,'" he said. "We just don't do that."
After SART nurses have examined victims, troopers or police interview the victim, James said. Nurses assist police with any questions the officers might have missed. SART also helps train troopers and police. Advocates from women's services or other agencies provide longer term counseling, she said. Coleman said when an advocate is called to help with a sexual assault victim, the advocate is there for the victim from a SART exam through a criminal trial and beyond.
James praised the assistance from peninsula police departments and the troopers.
"Law enforcement has always been fabulous about their support," she said.
"The SART program is really important to us," said Trooper Capt. Tom Bowman, E Detachment commander. "It really changes the way we respond to sexual assaults. Now we have a third party to collect evidence."
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