Feds release updated guidelines for medical exams in sex assault cases

Published: Wednesday, April 24 2013 7:19 p.m. MDT

When a victim approaches an examination, trust is key, said Beth Fitzgerald-Weekley, director and nurse at Salt Lake Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners.

Fitzgerald-Weekley is one of about 20 nurses who are part of a mobile team that is called to Salt Lake Valley hospitals in the event that a victim arrives or is brought in by law enforcement or someone else. The agency, which is one of the longest standing in the country, averages about a case a day, but numbers increase each year.

"I like to think it is because more people are reporting these cases and not that it is happening more, but we don't know for sure," she said.

Emergency department staff at hospitals doesn't usually have the time to devote to a victim of sexual violence, as a proper examination can take up to six hours, depending on the severity of injuries incurred. Emergency rooms are already busy places and often patients with life-threatening conditions are a priority, Fitzgerald-Weekley said.

The evidence needed in these cases, she said, deteriorates over time and is best collected as soon as possible.

The specially certified nurses perform a thorough head-to-toe exam, taking evidence of DNA from both the victim and potential suspect wherever found, as well as documenting any injury medically and photographically.

"We end up serving as the expert witness for these cases, so the more thorough the better," Fitzgerald-Weekley said.

The process, she said, is long and arduous, but "it's amazing how many of them will sit through this." The hope is that answers obtained through the exam can lead a victim on a path to recovery.

Fitzgerald-Weekley said her team began working with law enforcement and hospital personnel to educate and dispel the common urge to judge victims long before Wednesday's updated protocol came out.

"The first interaction with the patient makes a big difference in where they ultimately end up," she said.

The new guidelines emphasize carefully delivered care and withholding judgment.

It is also recommended that rape victims be offered emergency contraception or information on how to get the medication, as well as other interventions to treat potential sexually transmitted infections.

"Cutting back on the number of hurdles that a victim has to jump can only be a good thing," Mullen said.

Email: wleonard@deseretnews.com

Twitter: wendyleonards

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