ROCK HILL — A registered sexual assault nurse will no longer forensically examine and interview York County rape victims at Safe Passage.
County funds that employed a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) with the York County Sheriff’s Office and housed her equipment and an examination room at Safe Passage, a shelter for battered women and children in Rock Hill, has been completely eliminated.
Now, those services and the funding responsibility will fall into the hands of Piedmont Medical Center’s nursing staff. Safe Passage’s victims advocates, who provide emotional support and legal assistance to victims, will still be able to help victims who anonymously report their assault and choose not to involve law enforcement.
More than a decade ago, local law enforcement developed the SANE program to supplement services already provided by Piedmont Medical Center’s doctors, whose schedules were sometimes incompatible for giving testimony at trials or promptly performing the exams, said York County Sheriff Bruce Bryant.
“We realized the things doctors are doing, a trained, registered nurse could do the same thing,” he said.
A federal grant paid for 70 percent of the funding, with the York County Sheriff’s Office, Rock Hill Police Department and York County Solicitor’s Office filling the gap. At the time, Piedmont Medical Center didn’t have adequate space to house the program, Bryant said.
Riverview Medical Center in Rock Hill gave space for the program, until clinic officials said they needed more space to meet their own growth demands, he said. Officials next asked to use unused space at Safe Passage.
Since then, police officers and deputies investigating sexual assaults in the county instructed victims to go to Safe Passage. There they would be treated by an on-call SANE nurse responsible for interviewing rape victims and performing forensic exams, which include taking pictures of injuries and collecting DNA evidence.
But the program’s grant money was lost about two years ago when a former agency director failed to turn in the grant application on time, said Kevin Brackett, 16th Circuit Court solicitor. Safe Passage workers were unable to reapply, and the “enthusiasm for funding programs under the scenario we had…in York County was just not there,” he said.
Brackett said his office agreed to keep the program “alive,” but it was “always understood” that support would be temporary.
“I told them I don’t have funds to run a program like this indefinitely,” he said. “This is just a stopgap measure until we figure out another solution. It was always understood this was not a permanent solution.”
It cost the solicitor’s office about $75,000 over the 18 months Brackett funded it, he said.
Last fall, officials began searching for other funding sources. After looking at other facilities across the state, both Brackett and Sheriff Bryant said they realized most counties use local hospitals or other medical facilities for sexual assault exams.
They met with Piedmont Medical Center’s CEO, who agreed to take over those services. Funding by the solicitor’s office was officially cut on May 1.
Nurses at Piedmont have undergone training for SANE certification, Brackett said, and the hospital will soon refurbish space for a dedicated examination room.
“Because it’s a medical function, it made sense to provide that kind of service at a medical center,” he said.
Among sexual assault centers in the state, Safe Passage was until recently an “anomaly,” said Rebecca Agee-Williams, director for prevention and education at the SC Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, which comprises 22 sexual assault advocacy programs in the state, including Safe Passage.
Most agencies treating women for domestic violence are separate from facilities that treat sexual assault victims, she said, and generally send victims to be examined at local hospitals or medical clinics.
Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, a rape crisis center with offices in Richland, Lexington, Sumter and Newberry counties, has a partnership with area hospitals to always be kept in the loop when a victim reports a sexual assault to medical staff, said Ginny Waller, executive director. On average, her office services 45 to 50 victims per month in Richland and Lexington counties.
“We’re always called” by hospital staff to provide services to victims, Waller said, even if a victim wants to anonymously report the assault. The exams are always done at hospitals, she said, typically by SANE nurses contracted through local hospitals.
Now, York County victims who report their sexual assaults to local law enforcement will be sent to Piedmont Medical Center, and the sheriff’s office’s victim’s advocate will respond to the hospital, said Jada Charley, Safe Passage’s new director.
The Sheriff’s Office, she said, asked Safe Passage to no longer dispatch their victim’s advocates.
That’s because it’s law enforcement’s responsibility to ensure that services are provided to victims, whether they be victims of assault, rape or homicide, Sheriff Bryant said.
“Safe Passage provides a wonderful service; it’s not anything they’ve done,” he said. “It’s a matter of responsibility.”
Before the change, advocates from the Sheriff’s Office and Safe Passage would respond simultaneously if a woman at the hospital reported a sexual assault to police, Charley said.
“It gets overwhelming for a victim to have so many people there,” she said.
SANE nurses were also calling advocates from Safe Passage instead of the Sheriff’s Office to provide victims with services, Bryant said.
“That is not kosher,” he said.
Still, the shelter’s victim’s advocates will be the first to respond if a victim anonymously reports an assault without involving police. Police won’t be contacted at all, Charley said, and the DNA collected, gathered in a sexual assault kit —still considered evidence of the assault— will be handed over to the York County Sheriff’s Office with an account number. Police will not know who the kit belongs to.
Charley, meanwhile, said she’s writing a grant that she hopes will return the assault exam services to Safe Passage and return first-response duties to the shelter’s victim’s advocates, who are trained to do a “different service than law enforcement victim’s advocates,” she said.
Typically, if a victim goes to the hospital for an exam, Safe Passage’s advocates stay with them, Charley said. Advocates also bring them clothing to change into; snacks if they’re anticipating a long wait at the hospital; informational materials from Safe Passage; and a piece of paper for them to write down the advocate’s name and phone number.
Within a week, the advocates contact the victims, Charley said, and offer them additional services, including counseling, group therapy, assistance with legal actions, like restraining orders and attend preliminary hearings and criminal trials if the victim wants them to.
But, “I didn’t want to completely discount law enforcement advocates being the first responder,” she said.
Sheriff’s Office victim’s advocates provide similar services, including informing victims of upcoming legal proceedings and staying with them “throughout that process,” Bryant said, adding that the Sheriff’s Office will still Safe Passage’s services if a victim needs psychological support.
Officials are working on a joint-intake packet that law enforcement will give sexual assault victims at Piedmont. The packet will include booklets and information about Safe Passage’s services.
“I just think the more options victims have the better,” Charley said.
How medical personnel treat a victim will “set the tone” for how victims cope with their attack, Charley said.
“It’s critical to have medical personnel who are trained to work with victims in this area,” she said.
Emergency department nurses at Piedmont had been supplementing the county’s SANE program if the on-call nurse was unavailable for years, said Amy Faulkenberry, hospital spokeswoman. Piedmont would also traditionally perform the exams if a victim reported directly to the hospital.
Although they’re not forensic nurses, Piedmont’s nurses are trained to collect the evidence and DNA needed during a sexual assault exam, she said. On average, they see 12 to 15 victims per month.
After the exam, it’s up to adult victims if they want to notify an advocate or law enforcement, she said.
The nurses “are capable,” said Carrie Morphis, Winthrop University’s victim services coordinator.
Years ago, Winthrop University developed a partnership with law enforcement and Safe Passage to send students who reported an on-campus sexual assault to be forensically examined at the nonprofit shelter. Now, students also will go to Piedmont.
Morphis doesn’t expect it to be a jarring transition.
“I think that PMC has victims’ privacy in the forefront of their minds, and that’s definitely an issue they’re going to address,” Morphis said. “I know that’s important to them.”
Winthrop’s office of victims’ assistance, where students can report assaults and receive education, health and counseling services, has been on campus for five semesters, funded by a federal Department of Justice grant and the Office on Violence Against Women.