When Sexual Assault Is Reported, Long Beach's Forensic Nurses Keep Things SANE

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Malinda Wheeler, RN, founder and director of Forensic Nurse Specialists. 

Bruised and broken, with trembling hands and a tear-stained face, calling 911 after a rape can be a difficult decision to make. But in Long Beach, there are compassionate and highly trained nurses here to help victims go through the often uncomfortable process of reporting rape. Locally, we have a standard of care for instances such as this which includes Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) that meet victims at special centers in designated hospitals to console them and calmly collect evidence in what is for many their most vulnerable moment.

Rape and abuse against women and children is one of the fastest growing violent crimes in the U.S. It happens in horrific numbers with statistics of one in three women sexually assaulted in their lifetime. There were 115 documented rapes in 2012 in Long Beach alone. The problem with this number, however, is that according to the US Department of Justice, it is estimated that only a little more than half of sexual assaults are actually reported, which could put the actual amount of victims to this crime in our community at nearly double. The largest group of those afflicted is young women in their teens to early twenties.

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“The cases that we see are the victims that are brave enough to pick up the phone and make a police report and also want to have an examination," said Malinda Wheeler, an RN who founded and directs Forensic Nurse Specialists in Los Alamitos, a group that staffs the sexual assault response center in Long Beach where women who report rapes are taken.

Wheeler has been a registered nurse for 31 years and is also a family nurse practitioner. In the early ‘90s she was a professor of nursing at Long Beach City College when she found out about nurses helping in the area of forensics on living victims.

“When I heard about forensic nursing and that nurses were beginning to bridge that gap between the medical system and the legal system, I just thought it was a long time coming, and it was something fun and new and exiting in nursing,” said Wheeler.

She’s also known people close to her who have been victims of rape, and grew up in a home that had domestic violence. “I thought this is a specialty in nursing that would allow me to use my life experiences in a powerful way to help other women and victims and to make a difference,” said Wheeler.

forensicnursing2Wheeler went to a couple of seminars and joined an international association of forensic nurses. She soon became a volunteer advocate with the local rape crisis agency and saw first hand how poor the system was that was in effect. The examiner at the time was a jail doctor who didn’t really want to work with rape victims and its involved process: the time it consumed, dealing with a patient that is extremely battered and emotional, or have to go to court on the cases.

Wheeler proposed to the Long Beach Police Department to hire forensic nurses and instate the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) model. The team includes a rape crisis center advocate, a forensic nurse, the police department and even the Los Angeles County’s District Attorney’s office. The goal is to come together and support a victim from the first moment they report the crime and to help them through the criminal justice process, which can be long and arduous.

Wheeler’s next step was to find a hospital with space for the program. Community Hospital in Long Beach was the most enthusiastic supporter. They didn’t want to run the program, but offered Wheeler free space and supplies if she would take the reins.

She started her company Forensic Nurse Specialists in 1994. Her team now covers south and east L.A. County from Pomona to San Pedro, West Covina to a center that encompasses all of Orange County. Wheeler’s staff of twelve forensic nurses is on call 24/7 and can be at the SART centers within an hour of a reported assault.

Out of the cases that Wheeler’s team sees, 70% of rape victims know their assailants, whether it be an intimate, friend, family member or acquaintance. The term ‘date rape’ isn’t used anymore due to misconceptions of dinner and a movie turning into a sexual assault. Acquaintance rapes (as it’s now coined) are commonly someone that the woman has started to know whether it’s somebody at school or the coffee shop, etc.

The scary truth is, most attacks happen in women’s own homes.

At least 50% of women who report rape are under the influence. “The predators are going to look for the vulnerable. They’re not going to look for a super strong confident female with a kick-ass attitude. They’re going to look for somebody that’s stumbling or not paying attention to her environment or seems to have a lower self esteem,” said Wheeler.

forensicnursing3The SANEs approach the post-assault examination as gently as possible, first clothing is collected for evidence if the victim allows—there are brand new clothing kits available. They then look at the body head to toe for any kind of scratches, bite marks or bruising. The nurse then takes photographs, which are private and protected, and only turns them over to the police if absolutely necessary. All of the injuries are documented with any hint of DNA compiled, and lastly evidence is gathered from the genitals. Afterward pregnancy prevention (the morning after pill) and STD prevention are offered. The victim can take a shower and change; there’s even food and drinks available and optional counseling.

The standard cut off for collecting DNA is three days after an attack. However with technological advances DNA can be retrieved from a person’s body five to seven days later. “Women should not hesitate to make a police report or get an exam if they’ve already showered or taken multiple baths, because even if we can’t find DNA we can still find injury evidence to at least prove there was contact,” said Wheeler.

If a victim isn’t sure about prosecuting but knows the importance of getting forensic evidence collected for potential prosecution, there is something called a VAWA (Violence Against Women’s Act) exam. Federal legislation mandates that all states have a protocol on how victims can get a free forensic exam to preserve evidence with out making a police report.

Though reported rapes in Long Beach have decreased overall in the last five years, it is still a crime that victimizes people of all races and economic classes.

With kind shining green eyes and an encouraging smile, Wheeler said, “Because bad things happen to you, it doesn’t mean that’s how you need to be defined. You can turn that experience into something powerful and find a way to fight back.”

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