The case of the young rape victim years ago has long settled into the recesses of my mind, its edges, names and faces softened, blurred, lost in time.
But what is still sharp is the evidence of her assault, the violence, the damage, the physical invasiveness of it, all detailed by a nurse whose crisp, clear, calm testimony almost surely helped to convince jurors that the defendant was guilty as sin.
That nurse was a member of the Albuquerque Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Collaborative, or SANE, the medical professionals who provide a range of services from triage to testimony to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence.
During my years as a cops and court reporter, I often sat through their testimony and came to appreciate these nurses, who care for and shepherd survivors through the trauma and the trial in that same calm, competent and, I would add, compassionate way.
They are the people survivors see as soon as they make the decision to get help, the nurses who not only examine and collect forensic evidence and provide medical care but hold the hand of the survivor through the process, offering services, suggestions and support.
“The first thing we tell our patients is, ‘You survived,’ ” said Connie Monahan, executive director of the local program, a nonprofit, which this month marks 25 years in Albuquerque. “Whatever they did during the assault kept them alive, and that’s important to acknowledge.”
Being a nurse takes a special person. But being a SANE nurse takes a special kind of special person. Fortunately, for Albuquerque there is an ample supply of that special.
“We have no problem recruiting our nurses,” Monahan said. “Using averages, we have responded and treated over 12,500 sexual assault and child sexual abuse victims in these 25 years. That’s not bragging; that’s an expression of ‘OMG.’ ”
It’s a part-time job, usually on top of a nurse’s regular full-time job. The nurses – currently 16 of them, with two more in training – work 12-hour shifts, with at least one on call 24/7 and working in tandem with an advocate from the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico.
Monahan suspects that nurses are attracted to the program because it allows them to be nurses, not subordinates under doctors’ orders and time restrictions.
“It’s a nurse-driven model, where it’s just the nurse, advocate and patient, with no one clocking you, where one-on-one time with the patient can be extended as needed,” Monahan said. “It’s the luxury of autonomy and independence.”
Monahan said SANE nurses are also drawn to the forensics aspect of the job, the science with compassion, and, yes, even the chance to testify in court about their findings.
Before the Albuquerque program opened its doors in October 1996, a sexual assault victim had the options of waiting in a crowded, cold and clinical ER to be seen or the harshness of the police station to be heard, both potentially further traumatizing the victim.
Now, they can call SANE no matter the time or day, and a nurse will arrange to meet them in the safe privacy of the SANE unit, in the Family Advocacy Center in Downtown Albuquerque.
The unit includes two fully equipped exam rooms and shares another with Para Los Niños, which handles most of the younger child sexual assault victims and is one of the many other agencies at the FAC.
Nurses can also refer their patients to other community services – providing everything from counseling to cellphones to clothing – most of which are also at the FAC.
If the patient is ready, she or he can speak with a sex crimes detective from the Albuquerque Police Department, which maintains offices in a separate wing of the FAC floor.
Monahan said the choice to report a rape to law enforcement is strictly up to the patient, although she has noticed a decrease in the number of cases reported.
“Rates are going down from about 72% of the patients we see filing a report to about 68% now, and that’s not good,” she said. “Women, especially, have a coping mechanism that tells them they should just get over it, or that maybe the assault was somehow their fault. We even had someone say they didn’t come in because she didn’t want to wake up a nurse at midnight.”
APD stores rape kits from “non-reported cases” for two years, so victims have until then to report their assault, she said. But victims also must consider that as time passes memories fade and witnesses disappear. Rape kits are also not tested unless the victim reports, which means the potential to match the DNA with serial rapists doesn’t happen.
New Mexico has 11 SANE units across the state. The Albuquerque program is working with Valencia Shelter Services to open a satellite SANE unit in Los Lunas as early as January.
“Currently, there is no SANE program between Las Cruces and Albuquerque, and that is just too large a distance for a person in trauma to drive,” she said.
Monahan said that although it’s best to see a patient within five days of a rape, she hopes victims will call no matter the time and no matter whether they are ready to speak with a detective.
“We tell them, please, just come in, let us give you the care you need, the exam, the rape kit collection, and the rest can wait if they need that,” she said. “People don’t always make good decisions in crisis. So we give them time.”
SANE nurses are always standing by.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.