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Published: Monday, 3/1/2004

3 counties form alliance to aid investigations

PORT CLINTON - Officials and health-care professionals in Erie, Huron, and Ottawa counties plan to start a joint program next month to improve investigations of rape cases.

The tri-county Sexual Assault Response Team/Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners program will allow law enforcement officers, victim advocates, and specially trained nurses to work together in assisting rape victims and gathering evidence.

As part of the program, the nurse examiners will treat victims and gather forensic data that might be missed by emergency room physicians, said Carolyn Avery, a victim advocate in the Ottawa County prosecutor s office.

The nurse examiners are trained to treat and examine patients while looking for evidence that could be used to identify and prosecute a rapist - tiny tears and bruises, dried body fluids, stray hairs, and carpet fibers.

Although emergency room physicians can effectively treat sexual assault victims, they often aren t trained specifically how to find and preserve evidence, Ms. Avery said. Sometimes, rape kits are handled incorrectly, and evidence is inadvertently damaged or destroyed.

“Sometimes it can be something as simple as not air-drying the swab with the DNA, or it being put in the [rape] kit not dried,” she said.

The use of nurse examiners also will allow the same medical professional to handle the case throughout, from the initial examination to court testimony, Ms. Avery said.

“The benefits are shorter examination times, better forensic evidence collection, and improved prosecution,” she said. “It just makes all the sense. Doctors are so busy, they re hard to get to court to testify.”

The program will begin by April 28 with eight nurse examiners, who will work out of Firelands Regional Medical Center s south campus building in Sandusky. Except for cases of serious injury, rape victims will be treated there.

Ms. Avery said the nurse examiners will be on call 24 hours a day. They and victim advocates from the three counties will be notified by police when a sexual assault occurs and will respond with the investigating officer.

“Everybody goes there as a team and treats the victim,” she said. “I think it s just better for the victim. If I meet them that night in the emergency room, it helps establish a rapport.”

The team approach also can help minimize a victim s psychological trauma, Ms. Avery said.

The three counties received $20,000 from the state in December to help start the program. The state also awarded $20,000 in June, 2003, to Firelands to buy a colposcope, a magnifying camera used to photograph injured areas during pelvic exams.

An advisory committee began meeting in 1999 to plan the tri-county program.

Ohio has 35 such programs, including operations in Toledo and Findlay. Nationally, about 500 exist, up from about 20 in 1991, said Janet D Alesandro, a spokesman for the International Association of Forensic Nurses.

“These numbers have just shot up, because the need was identified,” she said.



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