Nurses, law enforcement officials create more compassionate environment for sexual assault victims

Posted Monday, Aug. 20, 2012  Print Reprints
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This article contains descriptions of sexual behavior.

The calls typically come in the wee hours, hundreds of them over the last decade. After each, Lisa Fisher grabs a teddy bear and heads for John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, hoping she and the bear can help restore comfort and dignity to a rape victim who has lost both.

"It doesn't matter if they're 15 years old or 75, those bears feel so good," said Fisher, a longtime rape crisis volunteer with the Women's Center of Tarrant County. "I have a lot of soft ones. I'm just trying to make it less threatening to them. They've already been stripped of everything.

"I want to make sure they understand they are survivors," said Fisher, a software engineer for Texas Instruments. "They got through it and they should be proud of themselves for coming in. But they are in control now."

That is the message that awaits rape victims at JPS, the hospital where Tarrant County sexual assault examinations take place, Fisher says. And not just from victim advocates like her. In the last generation, medical officials and law enforcement authorities have joined to create an environment for victims that is far more compassionate, humane and supportive than what existed in the past.

Fisher has served as a rape crisis volunteer for 10 years. Fisher recalls in her early days hearing police officers question the behavior of rape victims, within earshot. "The girl who had been through all that would hear it, and they would feel like they were at fault because they wore the wrong thing or drank the wrong thing," Fisher said. "Now I just don't see any of that. All the law enforcement officers and the [Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners], they are just so incredibly compassionate and supportive of any survivor that comes in, and proud of them for reporting the situation."

Thirty years ago, by contrast, rape victims were routinely administered polygraph exams before their cases were investigated, said Deborah Caddy, director of Tarrant County's rape crisis program since 1989. That practice is now prohibited by law. Both Fort Worth and Arlington have designated units for adult sex crimes, with detectives trained to better understand the complicated crime and the trauma of its victims.

At JPS, rape victims once waited for up to 12 hours for sexual assault exams. Four years ago, the hospital opened a state-of-the-art exam suite where the victims wait in comfort and privacy. The exams are performed by specially trained SANE nurses, and are typically completed in less than three hours.

"People have dedicated their lives to this, who are passionate about it," Caddy said. "I'm talking about professionals and everyday people who go up to the hospital time after time. They know it's wrong. They know it's unacceptable. They know the victim deserves someone to be there with them."

The changes coincide with shifting public attitudes about sexual assault, at least when the perpetrator is a stranger.

"In the quarter-century that I've been here, in terms of stranger sexual violence, we have seen change after change," Caddy said. "There was a time when every victim, when someone broke into her home, had to go through all of these questions and prove themselves a worthy victim. I'm not saying it's perfect today, but it's so drastically different."

Persistent myths

But misconceptions and myths persist about acquaintance rape, which is by far the most common form of sexual violence. Victim blaming and skepticism remain common. Acquaintance rape is widely viewed as less serious, like "drunk sex" or "date rape."

"While we would hope we would be where we're at with stranger rape, we're not," Caddy said. "You hear that in conversations you have socially. You hear that with professionals that you talk to. You're still having to prove to educated people that those are real rapes."

Until she became a JPS SANE nurse eight years ago, Connie Housley said she shared some of those misconceptions.

"When I first got into this, I thought [rape] was when someone put something over your mouth, dragged you into his car or came in through your window," said Housley, now the supervisor of the hospital's SANE program. "They happen, but those are rare. Acquaintance rape is definitely in the majority."

SANE nurses are trained to interview victims and collect physical evidence, Housley said. But they are also a crucial source of support in the traumatic hours just after an assault, especially in rapes where the victim knew her attacker. In those cases, she is much more prone to blame herself, Housley said.

"The fear, the guilt, the shame," Housley said. "I shouldn't have been here. I shouldn't have been wearing this. I shouldn't have drunk that. That's when the tears start rolling. We start talking about that.

"You can sit down one on one with me, a comforting nurse with a calm voice who is here to help you," she said. "I'll say, 'I believe you. You're going to get the medicines you need. You're going to get the treatment you need.' You might tell me things you might not tell anyone else, even if you're in that acute phase of trauma, very upset and sobbing. This is our only patient. We don't have anywhere else to be so we'll take as much time as the patient needs."

Since the recent passage of the so-called Jane Doe act, a victim can obtain a sexual assault exam and medical treatment without reporting an assault to law enforcement. The evidence is preserved in case the victim decides to report her assault later.

In her time with a rape victim, Fisher stresses that the Women's Center can help a victim sort through her trauma and decisions of whether or not to report. The counseling is free.

But first things first. For Fisher, that is the teddy bear.

"The first thing is that they need to feel like they did the right thing by getting checked out," Fisher said. "I don't stress the legal stuff. I just tell them that it's an option and you don't have to do it. They get to make the choices. They don't have to do the police. They don't have to tell a significant other. It's all about control.

"And I always stress it's not their fault, no matter what they've been through," Fisher said. "I don't care if you've been drinking for 24 hours, nobody has the right to abuse you."

Tim Madigan, (817) 390-7544; Twitter: @tsmadigan


About the series

Part 1: In Tarrant County, more than half of all acquaintance rape cases since 2008 have died behind the closed doors of a grand jury. National experts are shocked, victims outraged. Many wonder why justice isn’t being done.

Part 2: Meet the typical perpetrator of acquaintance rape. He’s not who you think he is.

Part 3: For the rape victims who report, a teddy bear and a lot of support.