Wasatch Forensic Nurses comfort assault victims

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(Wasatch Forensic Nurses)
The Wasatch Forensic Nurses will come to Utah County in May 2017. Forensic nurses help gather evidence of sexual assault and sometimes testify on behalf of victims. (Wasatch Forensic Nurses)

 

West Valley Special Victims Unit detective Justin Boardman recounted a domestic violence case where a nurse testified on behalf of the victim in a trial against the victim’s husband.

“The victim was there refusing to testify against her husband, which is part of her rights,” Boardman said. “We had injury that was consistent with the (victim’s claim). Our nurse was there and was going to testify that fact.”

Boardman said the victim went to the hospital following the attack so nurses could conduct a rape exam. The victim’s testimony was then recorded by Wasatch Forensic Nurses, a nonprofit team of nurses specifically trained to work with rape exams and victims.

“If medical evidence is obtained in the proper way, we can put the nurse on the stand and say, ‘What did this victim tell you?'” Boardman said.

Because the victim went in for a rape exam and the nurse’s testimony helped put the husband in jail for two years, according to Boardman.

Boardman said these nurses are valuable to investigations because victims “absolutely feel more comfortable” talking to the nurses before the police.

“When you have a patrol officer in uniform, that uniform is very much designed to be intimidating,” Boardman said. “Detectives can follow up later not in uniform and in a more comfortable environment.”

Nurses can record the victim’s testimony of the account in the meantime, before the investigation.

A map of Utah hospitals that conduct rape kits. (Aaron Endy)

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Wasatch Forensic Nurses has been located in Salt Lake County since 2001, and the team is coming to Utah County in May.

Nurses help make the process of conducting rape exams — which are crucial to investigations — easier for victims. The process usually includes taking DNA samples from the victim and photographing injuries to collect as much evidence as possible.

Wasatch Forensic Nurses Executive Director Julie Melini said nurses tailor the process to the patients, giving them back the agency and control they lost during the attack.

“It’s pretty much individual,” Melini said. “Whatever the patient is willing to consent to and whatever they’re willing to do is what we’ll do for the exam.”

Melini said she sees small transitions in victims during the rape exam process. Research shows victims are able to heal faster when they talk about their experiences, and the team members of Wasatch Forensic Nurses are there to listen to victims, according to Melini.

“It’s actually a very positive and rewarding job,” Melini said. “I get to see the patients when they first get in and they’re withdrawn and traumatized . . . and by the time we get through the exam and we talk about healing and moving on with their life and beginning that healing process, they’re happier.”

Julie Valentine, assistant nursing professor and certified sexual assault examiner for Wasatch Forensic Nurses, wrote a groundbreaking study about the large amount of untested rape kits.

Provo Police Department Victim Services Coordinator Kortney Hughes said all rape kits in Utah County were submitted to forensic labs because of Valentine’s study, which showed rape kits are valuable for the victims in starting investigations and receiving justice.

“Evidence in a rape kit, if it is analyzed, helps establish justice, and that justice can go both ways,” Valentine said. “We have cases where the findings from a rape kit excluded the suspect, meaning the person they thought committed the crime, it wasn’t their DNA.”

She said rape kits bring justice by identifying a rape victim’s attacker and then linking attackers to other crimes and attacks.

“It gives us information that helps us link crimes,” Valentine said. “We’re identifying serial rapists. That one person could be the stranger that raped someone else. One person’s friend is another person’s stranger.”

Wasatch Forensic Nurses will be a new resource in Utah County thanks to a grant Provo Police received in October 2016 to help victims of sexual assault. Hughes said the department is continuing to process every rape kit received.

“At this point our policy is just to submit all kits,” Hughes said. “If it’s not helpful for us, it’s helpful for someone else.”

Hughes said processed rape kits in Provo have identified the correct suspect and led police to unknown attackers in certain cases. Hughes said submitting rape kits helps the entire nation, not just the local area.

“There have been cases on EndtheBacklog.org,” Hughes said. “They tell you some really good stories of agencies that have identified serial offenders in other areas, so it just goes to show that it’s super helpful nationwide, not just locally.”

Hospitals that Wasatch Forensic Nurses respond to can be found on its website. The nurses are contacted by the hospital or the police once a victim comes forward.