Archive for Thursday, April 21, 2005

Center a sanctuary for sexual assault victims

April 21, 2005

Welcome to the place where no one wants to go.

The Leavenworth County Sexual Assault Center opened its doors last week to raise the community's awareness of the resources available to victims and their families when tragedy hits. About 50 people attended.

The center is an emergency care clinic in the Medical Arts Building of Cushing Hospital. However, the center is not run by the hospital. It is one component of the Alliance Against Family Violence, a nonprofit group serving Leavenworth County.

Members of the Alliance began raising money to open the shelter about five years ago, said Linda Seba, an emergency room nurse at St. John Hospital.

Seba was one of the first people to work on the project of opening a center specifically for victims of sexual assault. She said that after working in emergency rooms for years, she found it disturbing that victims of sex crimes were brought there to be treated. Seba said the experience was "humiliating and frightening" for the victims who had already suffered great trauma.

"It was pretty obvious why they were there," she said.

Seba said the center offered a more private setting for victims.

The center opens on an emergency basis only - law enforcement notifies the alliance when the center is needed. Therefore, the victim and possibly family or friends will be the only people at the center besides a nurse, a victim advocate and the reporting police officer.

Seba said one reason the center was necessary was that nurses at the hospital were not trained to perform rape kits on victims. The center, on the other hand, contracts with sexual assault nurse examiners who have taken a 40-hour training course to perform rape kits and use an instrument called a colposcope, which takes internal pictures of sexual assault victims.

The center also has about 25 victim advocates who are on-call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The advocates explain the process of what is going to happen to the victim and family, said Shana Smith, the sexual assault advocacy coordinator.

"This is all like a foreign language to them," Smith said.

Sometimes advocates just need to distract the victim from what has just happened, Smith said. She said once she just talked about softball.

"I talk about anything under the sun other than what is going on right now," she said.

Smith said the advocates guide victims through the process. They tell victims what to expect while they are at the center, such as the steps of the examination, and they also explain the legal process. Smith said she follows up with every visitor to the center within 48 hours.

The center also examines child victims in a separate area called Brian's Room. Sister Jane Albert Mehrens of the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth said the room was named after a boy who was murdered by his adoptive parents. One of Brian's foster mothers was another Sister of Charity of Leavenworth, and she donated money that she received in his name to the center, Mehrens said.

The children's room has anatomically correct dolls for the victims to use to describe what happened to them, Smith said. She said it often was easier for children to point to something than to describe it.

The room also has a dollhouse. Smith said the advocate who is interviewing the child would ask him or her to set up the house like the place where the abuse happened. Even if children won't talk about what happened, Smith said, they often would play out the scene using the dollhouse and dolls. The room has a video camera that records the child's interview for evidence.

Smith said the center could perform examinations on some children, with consent of a guardian, but she said the center did not examine children younger than 5 years old. The examination can be painful and traumatic, she said, so young children are sent to Children's Mercy Hospital or the University of Kansas Hospital, where they can be anesthetized before the procedure.

The center relies on grants and donations to run, Smith said. She said that always made her a little nervous.

"When grants start getting cut, we hold our breath," she said.

Mehrens said the biggest expense at the center was the colposcope, which cost about $32,000. The center had to raise about $10,000 to receive a grant to pay for the rest, she said.

Rape kits cost about $815, but they are provided by the county, Smith said. The center,however, picks up the $250 cost for the nurse to administer the kit, which can take two to four hours.

Mehrens, who also worked to open the center, said the community made the center possible.

"I used whatever skill I could to let the community know, and people came on board like you wouldn't believe," she said.

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