Sexual assault survivors assisted through teamwork: Part 1 |

Sexual assault survivors assisted through teamwork: Part 1

Jill Darby

An estimated 302,100 women and 92,700 men are forcibly raped each year in the United States, according to the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

There were 13 reported cases of forceable rape last year at South Lake Tahoe, according to the South Lake Tahoe Police Department, although this number is not representative of how many sexual assaults actually occurred because most victims do not come forward.

Self-blame, guilt, fear and the perception that their attacker will go unpunished are some reasons victims hesitate to report incidents of rape, said Leanne Wagoner, operations manager at the South Lake Tahoe Women’s Center.

“It’s not very often victims come forward,” Wagoner said. “But if someone wants to come into the Women’s Center to discuss an assault we don’t make them go to the hospital for an exam. We don’t make them file a report. If it’s an adult victim, it is their choice and whatever they discuss with us is totally confidential.”

Once a rape is reported, there are various steps taken to collect evidence and, in some circumstances, conduct an investigation.

First the responding police officer contacts the victim to get a preliminary statement, a general report of what happened. The victim may then opt to have an evidentiary medical exam at Barton Memorial Hospital. A crisis advocate from the Women’s Center as well as a legal-oriented advocate from the Victim Witness program are notified early in the process to offer support to the victim.

After an exam has been performed to collect evidence, a police detective meets with the victim to get a more detailed statement. At this time, if there is enough probable cause, police officers will make an arrest without a warrant. If there is not enough probable cause or the suspect has fled, the District Attorney’s Office will review the investigation and determine whether or not they want to file a complaint. If a complaint is filed, the District Attorney’s Office will issue a warrant for the suspect’s arrest. Law enforcement then tries to locate the suspect and make the arrest.

After an arrest has been made, there is an arraignment, then a preliminary hearing.

Most rape cases do not go to trial. If a case does go to trial the District Attorney’s Office argues its case. When a verdict has been reached, the probation department steps in. A probation officer makes a report which covers all factors involved in the case and then recommends a sentence. The district attorney may argue sentencing and assumes some involvement if there is an appeal, although the appeal process is handled for the most part by the Attorney General’s Office.

Sexual Assault Response Team, a.k.a. SART

The Sexual Response Assault Team is made up of nurses, police officers and Women’s Center crisis counselors, all of whom are trained specifically to handle sexual assault cases.

The program started in California and spread across the world.

Eileen Rice, one of four SART nurses at Barton Memorial Hospital, said the program is aimed at making victims of sexual assault as comfortable as possible.

“We’ve got this wonderful, caring team of experts and our goal is to serve people who are survivors and victims so they feel comfortable about coming forward,” she said. “We take care of the whole person. It is a great service that the police agencies, the hospital and the Women’s Center provide. Many communities do not have near the services available we have here.”

Some of the Women’s Center’s SART crisis advocates are trained community volunteers and the center is always looking for more volunteers, Community Educator Lois Denowitz said.

Role of SART nurses

Sexual assault nurse examiners are regular nurses who have special training and certification to do sexual assault exams.

“It’s an extensive training program we go through and after we complete the training we have to spend a varying amount of time with various agencies around town before we are certified,” said SART nurse Eileen Rice, an Emergency Room nurse at Barton. “This is a branch of forensic nursing. We are accepted in court as expert witnesses. There are SART teams all over the world and we keep in touch through the International Forensic Nurses Association.”

A nurse’s initial contact with sexual assault victims is usually at the hospital, where Rice said 99.9 percent of the time victims will be examined by a SART certified nurse.

“It’s to the best benefit of the victim to have this team concept,” Rice said. “The team consists of a specially trained advocate from the Women’s Center, a police officer who has jurisdiction and the sexual assault nurse examiner. Our examination does not begin until the whole team is assembled.

“When we do our exam we have the SART nurse examiner and the advocate in the room, that’s it. There is enough going on as it is and we need to do our best to preserve someone’s dignity and privacy. Our local police officers handle these cases very well. We’re very lucky to have police officers of the caliber we have because they handle things very professionally and very conscientiously.”

Rice said when SART nurses meet victims, they introduce themselves and explain the examination process.

“We want to make sure the victim understands it is an evidentiary exam for their benefit,” she said. “They can consent to any or all of the exam. They can change their mind at any stage of the exam. It’s their choice. They can take breaks if they need to. This is all done with the best interest of the survivor in mind.”

Role of law enforcement

South Lake Tahoe Police Detective Martin Hale often deals with sexual assault cases and said it is important officers handle victim interviews with sensitivity.

“We try to encourage the officers to be very discrete in what they say,” he said. “As a victim, you talk to the initial officer, then to the medical personnel, then a detective talks to you. We do want to get a full account of what occurred but we don’t want them to have to explain (the details over and over).”

After the medical examination, Hale said the detective has an opportunity to sit down with the victim to discuss the specifics of the incident. This generally takes place in the SART room at Barton Hospital. The room, funded by Soroptimist International and designed as a safe, comfortable place, is equipped with video and tape recording devices and other tools which may assist in the investigative process.

But a detective’s job is not done once he or she interviews a victim. Oftentimes, officers involved in the investigation are issued a subpoena to testify in a preliminary hearing or at trial.

Hale, along with South Lake Tahoe Police detective Donna Kingman, is a member of a Sexual Assault Response Team.

Part 2 of this story will include sections on the roles of the South Lake Tahoe Women’s Center, District Attorney’s Office and Victim Witness, as well as a brief description of the probation department’s duties in regard to sexual assault cases and some comments from Judge Suzanne Kingsbury.

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around the Lake Tahoe Basin and beyond make the Tahoe Tribune's work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Your donation will help us continue to cover COVID-19 and our other vital local news.