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Mercy struggles to fill specialized post to help victims of sexual assault

By Katherine Wartell

Officials at Mercy Regional Health Center are looking to hire a much-needed nurse in the Emergency Department who can assist sexual assault victims following their assault and collect evidence for law enforcement.

The position, known as a SANE/SART (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner/Sexual Assault Response Team) coordinator, has been open since last summer, after the former coordinator, Stephanie Reich, resigned and moved to Topeka.

Since mid-July, sexual assault victims have had to be transported to other cities so that rape kits can be administered and other evidence collected as Riley County does not have a specially trained nurse to assist in the process.

The role is highly specialized, requiring a 40-hour preceptor class to be qualified to work with adult victims and an additional 40 hours to be able to assist pediatric patients.

Jana Bowman, marketing and public relations director for Mercy Regional Health Center, said the hospital’s SANE/SART team still exists, but on a limited basis. That means the hospital can still treat sexual assault victims, but, Bowman said, they are generally sent to Topeka or Salina for actual evidence collection, as the process requires specialized training.

The evidence collection process includes using a KBI rape kit and gathering photographic evidence. And, Bowman said, the nurse who collects the evidence can testify in court regarding this process.

The SANE/SART coordinator would lead the team on a full-time basis and would be on-call in emergency situations.

According to a February 2012 article in Mercy’s Up Close magazine, the response team members include physicians who serve as medical directors, hospital social workers, sexual assault advocates, law enforcement agents and social service representatives when children may be involved.

Bowman said the hospital sees eight to nine patients who need SANE/SART services a month, and she said that of those patients, only about half come from Riley or Pottawatomie counties.

She said there has not been much interest in the position.

Though the matter has been an issue since July, it was brought to the attention of county commissioners Thursday by Riley County Attorney Barry Wilkerson, whose office uses the evidence and testimony from trained nurses for prosecution.

As it is, Capt. Jeff Hooper with the Riley County Police Department said victims who report their assaults to police are generally interviewed first and then transported to Topeka or Salina by an officer or detective.

He said the process usually takes about 10 to 12 hours.

The officer who accompanies the victim will then ensure the evidence is transferred to the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, Wilkerson said.

But officials said they do not want this to discourage victims from reporting their assaults, and Hooper said victims do not have to pay for transport to other counties.

Still, Jayme Morris-Hardeman, executive director of Sunflower CASA Project Inc., an agency that advocates for children, said, “it is extremely frustrating for those of us who work in the field,” adding that it is important that the county have nurses who are trained to work with children.

Transporting the victims and paying for nurses from other counties to travel to Manhattan and testify in court also presents extra costs for the county.

On Thursday, commissioners agreed that they would work together with other departments in addressing the issue.

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