By Joshua Vickers
As the Massachusetts Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program waits for clearance from the U.S. Navy to begin operating its federally funded TeleNursing Center, the issue of sexual assault remains a front-line battle for many American institutions.
The Department of Defense’s Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military to Congress from 2012 noted a 5 percent increase of reported sexual assaults over the previous year. The report also points out that the data it presents “does not necessarily reflect the number that occurred in 2012.”
The report states that the Defense Department estimates less than 15 percent of those who were sexually assaulted in the military actually reported it. The department draws this comparison with national estimates that only 16 percent of civilian women and 11.5 percent of college women who were assaulted filed reports.
The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center reports similar statistics, citing a study that showed only 5 percent of college women reported their assault. The numbers represent what seems to be the biggest problem with sexual assaults across the board: victims are reluctant to come forward.
“To disclose that you’ve been assaulted is difficult,” said Stacy Garrity, SANE nurse and Education and Outreach Manager for the TeleNursing Center. “To say the words, to have to tell someone and articulate that and hear yourself say it I think can be very difficult. And then the mystery of ‘What’s going to happen to me next?’”
The social stigma of sexual assault and the embarrassment felt by victims if they do come forward may be two big reasons for the lack of reported assaults. But there is also evidence that justice systems have not always focused on helping victims face the traumatizing circumstances surrounding a sexual assault.
“When the military first reported it, they lumped all types of sexual assault from unwanted contact right through rape with penetration into a single question,” said Chris Murphy, Project Manager for the TeleNursing Center.
In an effort to broaden its definition of sexual assault, the Defense Department report states that “For incidents that occur on or after June 28, 2012, the term ‘sexual assault’ refers to the crimes of rape, sexual assault, aggravated sexual contact, abusive sexual contact, non-consensual sodomy, and attempts to commit these acts.”
President Obama reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act in March 2013 which provides federal support for communities to combat sexual assault. Originally enacted in 1994, the act also provides federal protection for victims during the legal process. It created the “rape shield law” which prevents offenders from using the victims’ past sexual behavior in trial. It also mandates that no victim should have to pay for their rape exam, according to the act’s online fact sheet.
Obama also established the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault in January 2014. The task force is slated to work with campuses to provide awareness for prevention as well as protection and support for victims. The administration also pledged more funding for SANE programs nationwide, according to a White House press release.
“‘Crisis’ and ‘epidemic’ have been used in the general media,” Murphy said. “For nurses here that have been engaged in this work for a long time it’s not a newly discovered crisis for them.”
The SANE program has been in existence since the late 1970s with the core purpose of providing the type of support for victims of sexual assault that was severely lacking prior to its existence.
Studies have been done to determine the effectiveness of the SANE program, and the findings show it to be overwhelmingly positive. The National Institute of Justice helped create the “Practitioner Toolkit for Evaluating the Work of SANE Programs” which was designed to study the SANE program’s effect on the criminal justice system.
The research report includes findings from studies that show that victims treated by a SANE nurse had an easier time recovering after the assault. Rape kits provided by SANE are “more thorough and had fewer errors” than non-SANE kits, and that SANE witness testimony in trials is “instrumental in obtaining convictions,” the report stated.
The goal of the grant issued by the federal Office of Victims of Crime (OVC) was to build a TeleNursing Center that would help bring the benefits of the SANE program to its target populations – populations that would otherwise have had a difficult time developing their own SANE program.
The Massachusetts SANE program was chosen by the OVC because it demonstrates the most organized version of the program in the country, said Joan Sham, director of the Massachusetts SANE program.
The report from the National Institute of Justice points to studies that show that communities that have developed a SANE program have seen a vast improvement in their ability to treat victims of sexual assault.
“Before the SANE program, community services were disjointed and fractionalized, but afterwards care for survivors was centralized because there was a point of convergence where multiple service providers could come together to help victims,” the report stated.
The target populations of the TeleNursing Center are military, tribal and rural locations where there is not only a lack of response for victims of sexual assault, but also where circumstances make it extremely difficult for victims to report their assaults, according to the Massachusetts Department of Health’s Division of Health and Human Services.
The nurses of the Massachusetts SANE program are optimistic that their efforts with the TeleNursing Center will help combat sexual assault in their target areas moving forward.
“Once you begin paying attention the numbers go up,” Sham said, “people feel that they can come forward now because people are taking a serious approach to it.”