Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners not available in Stephenville

By Amber Ward – 

For urban victims of sexual assaults, rape examinations can be performed quickly at nearby medical facilities.

But for victims in Stephenville and other rural areas in Texas, getting an examination after a sexual assault can mean an hour-and-a-half drive to Fort Worth.

And that, law enforcement and medical personnel say, needs to be changedThe lack of examiners and exams has a negative impact on victims, said District Attorney Jason Cashon.

“I think the fact they have to drive so far to get examined is insensitive and inconvenient, and we should have kits and examiners here,” Cashon said.

Tarleton Police Chief Justin Williams said his department has no rape kits, and that Stephenville and Tarleton have been without SANE nurses, or Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, for quite some time.

“In the event of a sexual assault, the victim would be transported to a hospital in Tarrant County for examination,” Williams said.

For sexual assault victims in Erath County, the closest facility with rape kits and trained SANE individuals is John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, about 80 miles away.

According to the JPS Health Network Web site, JPS has 10 SANE nurses highly skilled at caring for sexual assault victims – that’s more than any other area hospital. SANE nurses have special training in forensics, evidence collection and experience in providing courtroom testimony.

Stephenville High School nurse Patricia Mewhinney said while Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in Stephenville has sexual assault kits, the facility does not employ SANE nurses. Victims who don’t want to go to Fort Worth could be examined in Stephenville but the exam would be conducted by a physical and a nurse – neither of which were trained as SANE nurses.

The local hospital will treat the physical trauma that often accompanies sexual assault, but afterwards the victim would probably need to be transported to JPS.

“Evidence is delicate and must be preserved so victims should go to JPS because they have trained SANE nurses and I think they are some of the best in the field,” said Mewhinney.

Janet Neff, Managing Partner at JPS Health Network, said for evidence of sexual assault to be legally admissible in court, it has to be gathered by staff that has been specifically trained with the proper evidence retrieval kit.

JPS personnel, she says, have the training to do that and the hospital has “contracts with more than 50 surrounding jurisdictions to do rape exams for court approved evidence.”

Cross Timbers Family Services in Stephenville helps to both initialize the process of getting victims to JPS and help victims recover after an assault. Cross Timbers is a center that provides hope, help and healing to victims of crime; including family violence, sexual assault, child abuse and other types of violent crime.

Services include a 24-hour hotline, 24-hour victim assistance, counseling by trained professionals, support groups, legal advocacy, community education and information and referrals.

Jen Nsekpong, a Cross Timbers employee, said Cross Timbers has a full-time on-call counselor and an intern who help get transport for victims and offer various counseling programs for them afterwards.

“We cannot actually transport the victim, but we can take them to get a car or contact a friend to take them and then they will have a police escort,” said Nsekpong.

Even if a victim does not file a police report they are still entitled to care.

“Many do not know that they can receive care without having to report it to police. The State Crime Victims’ Fund pays for their treatment. They are not required to pay for the visit with insurance or any out of pocket expense,” says the JPS Health Network website.

Nsekpong also said she doesn’t think local hospital personnel should perform sexual assault exams because the hospital has no SANE nurses.

“Exams need to be done by someone who is trained in that specific field because they are trained and they can better collect evidence,” said Nsekpong.

Further, she says, the area lacks a facility which could store the results of the examinations for the two years required.

“All evidence is kept in a certain area of storage for two years, and after those two years those rape kits are destroyed, and I really think that the reason we don’t have the rape kits is because we don’t have storage for them,” said Nsekpong.

District Attorney Cashon said when a sexual assault is reported to police, they notify Cross Timbers Family Services for help in arranging a sexual assault exam. Depending on the age of the victim, they are instructed to go to either Cook Children’s Hospital or the JPS Health Network in Fort Worth to get a sexual assault kit and exam,

“Although a victim can decline to do this and go see a doctor here, it is better if they go to JPS in Fort Worth to get a rape kit and see a SANE nurse because it is more accurate for forensic evidence and is more successful in court,” said Cashon.

Donna Steen, Chief Nurse at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital in Stephenville confirmed that the hospital does have rape kits and that they will do exams if a victim refuses to go to JPS. Harris Hospital has a small program for such things, but they do not have SANE nurses. Victims are urged to go to JPS where they will be examined by a team including SANE nurses and social workers. Steen also said the hospital does not employ SANE nurses because the number of assaults is too low to have several full time nurses.

“I would rather them go to JPS because they have the specialty training for it and they do that stuff on a daily basis. I wish we had something here, but at the same time JPS does this all the time. We don’t have enough cases of sexual assault here to warrant trying to get several full time SANE nurses and honestly, they are better trained clinically and forensically than we are,” said Steen.

“If I were a victim, I would want to go to JPS and not have to worry about something going wrong and evidence not being collected correctly. What happens when the case comes up in court and is thrown out because of one little thing. It is an inconvenience, but I think going to JPS is for the best for everyone,” Steen said.

Cheryl Johnson, Sergeant of the Sex Crimes Unit in Fort Worth, said she agrees with Cashon and that it is a long drive for victims to make to receive the exam and treatment. On the other hand, she also believes the SANE nursing staff at JPS is the best in the state.

“The work they do and the evidence they collect not only helps us with current cases but in solving our cold cases as well,” said Johnson.

In addition, Johnson also stated she knows JPS is attempting to schedule upcoming training to certify SANE nurses.

“It might be an opportunity for someone in your area to attend this training,” said Johnson.

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