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Reporting Sexual Assault: How State College's First Responders Make Reporting More Compassionate

In the aftermath of a sexual assault, victims often don’t know what to expect. Even reporting an assault can be a traumatic process.

But for the past 15 years, State College has been trying to change that for victims who report at Mount Nittany Medical Center.

As soon as someone shows up at the hospital and reports a sexual assault, they are brought into a private exam room and shown a video. It says, “We are here to help you. You are not alone. You are safe now. Right now, a sexual assault response team, or SART, is gathering to provide individualized care for you.”

The SART team usually gathers at Mount Nittany Medical within the half hour.

In 2015, the team was activated 92 times. It consists of a victim’s advocate from the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, a specially-trained forensic nurse and a police officer from the jurisdiction where the sexual assault occurred. Anne Ard, the executive director of the Women’s Resource Center, says the SART team’s job is a tricky one.

“What will happen is the advocate will sort of take the lead and explain to the victim what the process is. At any point - and this is our county protocol - that at any point, the victim can decide who he or she wants stay and be a part of the process and who they don’t,” she said.

That means a victim can choose to work with the advocate, but decide not to get a forensic exam. Or they might want counseling, but not to file a police report. The advocate is there to support the victim’s decision. According to a 2006 study by Michigan State University, victims who had the support of an advocate were significantly less likely to be re-traumatized by reporting. Ard says the SART team is considered best practice for sexual assault response. “And that really developed out of a desire to again, make the process as victim-sensitive as it could possibly be.”

It wasn’t always this way. Before SART was implemented in 2001, patients who reported sexual assault could be left waiting in the ER for hours, unsure of what was going to happen.

Judy Pleskonko is the director of the sexual assault forensic examiner program at Mount Nittany Medical Center. “At that time, they sat in the waiting room until you know - until someone had time to deal with them,” Pleskonko said.

She says when victims were treated, the nurses on duty had little to no specialized training in gathering forensic evidence. So in the late nineties, Pleskonko and a group of nurses looked for a better way to do things. “There was a group of nine nurses that felt there needed to be a change,” Pleskonko said.

Thanks to their work, every nurse who works in the emergency room at Mount Nittany Medical is trained as a sexual assault nurse examiner. It’s one of 39 hospitals in Pennsylvania that has these nurses. They’re trained to perform complicated forensic exams, while treating the patient with compassion. That person becomes their only priority; other patients are taken off their care.

Ard says everything about the SART process is meant to make things as easy as possible for the victim and to keep them from being re-traumatized. “We want to minimize the times a victim has to tell his or her story, either to an advocate or a nurse or to law enforcement. So this system was designed so specially trained nurses could actually do the forensic interview and that way they can give the paperwork to the police officer, without having to tell her story, or his story, multiple times.”

Now, everyone who the victim wants in the room hears their story at one time. And the advocate, forensic nurse and police officer already know exactly the next steps,  and what they need from each other. In addition to minimizing the impact on the victim, studies have also shown working in tandem increases the likelihood of criminal prosecution.

Ard and Pleskonko think this is best way to treat victims of sexual assault – with sensitivity and respect for their healing process.

This is the second in a three-part series about reporting sexual assault in Centre County. 

Erin Cassidy Hendrick was an associate producer at WPSU. She produced the programs “BookMark” and “This I Believe” for the station.
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