SPECIAL REPORT: Sexual Assault: Helping the Victim Heal through SANE exams

Published: Feb. 28, 2017 at 5:34 PM MST
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One in five women will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime. Victims say it is a traumatic experience that can leave them feeling afraid and vulnerable.

Some local nurses are working hard every day to change their fear into a feeling of freedom. They’re part of the Sexual Assault Response Team, a collaboration between medical officials, law enforcement and Colorado Mesa University.

At 15 years old, a Grand Junction girl’s life changed forever. She was meeting a guy she met on Facebook for only the second time in-person.

“He dragged me behind a couple of dumpsters and raped me for the next hour and a half,” the victim told us. “Then he just got up and left me there."

That victim told us it was an experience that left her shocked and afraid.

“You don't think that can happen to you,” she said. “I honestly didn't think I would make it out.”

She told us that at first her friends and family questioned how this could happen.

“You think it happens to girls who do something stupid or put themselves in danger,” she told us. “And I don't know, I think that's why there is a lot of victim blaming."

However, thanks to a resource on the Western Slope, she was able to receive the help she needed to heal.

“When I talked with an officer and a nurse during the SANE exam, it was very, 'okay this happened, so what can I do to help you heal?’” she said. “It was that, rather than having me feel like I was at fault for it, or anything like that.”

SANE, the Sexual Assault Nurse Exam, has been offered on the Western Slope for nearly 30 years.

“Short of going to Denver, there is nothing like it,” said Wendy Filener, the Mesa County SART Medical Director.

For sexual assault victims, the process begins with an interview by law enforcement. Then, oftentimes a victim’s advocate will step in.

“They didn't do anything wrong and it's not their fault. That's when an advocate can come in and reinforce those messages,” said Tracy Baker, the Victims Services Coordinator.

A SANE nurse is called out to meet the victim.

“When we are the first people to see them, we are often the first people to hear their story without bias,” said Danielle Yahn, the SANE Nursing Coordinator.

Their goal is to give control back to a victim who feels helpless. SANE nurses are highly trained to look for DNA and trauma to provide evidence.

"They're able to collect forensic evidence in ways that physicians are not able to,” Filener said.

The Western Slope Center for Children plays an avid role in the program. One of the SANE exam rooms is at their location.

The non-profit says between 2015 and 2016 they saw a 41 percent increase in adult exams and a 34 percent increase in child exams.

"We really want to make sure that they know they are physically safe, and want caregivers to know that as well,” Melissa Lytle explained with WSCC.

Currently, the newest exam room is located at Colorado Mesa University, at the Student Wellness Center.

“To my knowledge, we are the only university in Colorado providing this type of resource,’ said John Marshall, the vice president for student services.

An exam must take place within 3 to 5 days in order to collect forensic evidence.

Laws have changed, and rape victims no longer have to cooperate in an investigation with law enforcement, if they choose not to.

"It can be confidential if you would like, and we can provide you with all the care you need because this is the first step in healing,” Yahn said.

Victims have three options: receive a confidential exam, receive an exam and not be a part of the investigation, or receive an exam and aid in the investigation with law enforcement.

If a victim chooses to remain confidential, evidence will still be collected and can be used at a later date if he or she chooses.

“We encourage you to come have the exam, and if down the road they change their mind, we have that evidence,” said Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein.

Rubinstein says the SANE evidence is often used in sexual assault trials. Law enforcement says collecting DNA and other reports of injury are crucial.

“SANE exams are key in our cases,” said Jeff Byrne, an investigator with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office. "We take the kits and submit them to CBI to do testing for DNA or matches and things like that."

While sexual assault can take away victims feelings of freedom, it is something that needs to be addressed.

“A lot of people don't like to have those conversations,” Lytle said. “But there is really no way to help prevent this happening in our community if we don't discuss it."

Something victim’s say can make all the difference.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve dealt with,” the victim we spoke with said. “But I’m making it through. It's been some years now and I’m okay. I think you can be okay too.”

There are five SANE medical exam rooms around the Grand Valley. Those are located at St. Mary’s, Community Hospital, CMU, the Western Slope Center for Children, and soon, Family Health West in Fruita.

Our SANE program is community-based, meaning the collaboration between different organizations is what runs it. The program is funded by donations and grants.

SANE exams are completely free to victims. If you or someone you know has been sexually abused and needs access to a SANE exam, you need to call Mesa County dispatch at 970-242-6707.