For years, many rape and sexual assault victims in Lake County have had to travel to other counties to undergo forensic examinations because there weren't enough nurses trained to conduct the exams.
Assault victims were usually sent to Queen of the Valley Medical Center in Napa and, more recently, as far as UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. Victim advocates say the long trip, sometimes late at night, only adds to the trauma victims experience after an assault.
But that's about to change. The county's multi-agency Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) is getting a boost from a slew of newly trained nurses at Sutter Lakeside Hospital. And St. Helena Hospital Clearlake is also expected to commit nurses to the program in 2014.
"It's going to be amazing when we have those hospitals in the county on board doing sexual assault exams," said Crystal Martin, child abuse and sexual assault advocate for the Victim-Witness Division of the Lake County District Attorney's Office.
Martin said that keeping victims in the county will reduce the trauma for the victim. "We'll have everything we need right here to take care of victims," she said.
The need for such examiners is great, Martin said. So far this year, the District Attorney's Office has pursued 21 criminal sexual assault cases involving adults and children.
Last year, the district attorney's Victim-Witness Division conducted 39 interviews with children in sexual assault and abuse cases. By the beginning of July, the number of interviews had already hit 30, Martin said.
The additional training will allow nurses to become not just care-givers but forensic examiners, qualified to collect sensitive evidence and even testify in court.
"We are there as an arm of the law as well as health care providers," said Cyndy Forbes, a registered nurse and SART coordinator at Sutter Lakeside.
The training the nurses receive in collecting and handling evidence is critical, particularly with the advent of advanced forensic tools such as rapid DNA analysis.
"It's our job to collect DNA evidence," Forbes said. "You either do it right or you do it wrong, and DNA evidence that's collected incorrectly is worth nothing in court."
Sutter Lakeside now has four nurses on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, who are trained to conduct forensic examinations of sexual assault victims. Officials at St. Helena Hospital, which used to provide forensic nurses several years ago, said they would once again maintain a roster of examiners beginning in early 2014.
"It's a big commitment for a hospital," Martin said. "They have to find the right nurses willing to do that."
Aside from Sutter Lakeside nurses, the team includes the Victim-Witness Division, District Attorney's Office, the Clearlake and Lakeport police departments, the sheriff's office, child welfare services and Lake Family Resource Center.
The Sutter Lakeside nurses received their training at the California Clinical Forensic Medical Training Center in Sacramento. Nurses undergo 40 hours of training for dealing with adult victims and another 40 hours for dealing with children.
Aside from collecting DNA evidence, the nurse's job as a forensic examiner includes photographing the victim to document injuries, searching for evidence such as foreign material, and using a "Wood's lamp" for finding secretions on the victim that would not otherwise be visible in plain light.