Sensible Treatment for Rape Victims

Article excerpt

She came back from the pool carrying her towel, and as soon as she was inside the apartment he was behind her with the knife. He told her to lie down on the floor, and then he put the towel over her head, and he raped her. When he was gone, she called 911. The police came. They took her to the hospital.

And then something remarkable happened. She was treated with sensitivity and great care by people whose only duties were to look after her, explaining what was happening as the semen and saliva samples were taken, as her pubic hair was combed for evidence, as she dropped her bathing suit onto butcher paper.

The rapist took away her sense of safety and dignity, and the women who held and helped her tried to give it back. When the exam was over they invited her to go into an adjoining bathroom and take a shower.

"I felt as if I was in that shower forever," recalls Erica, whose assailant is to be tried soon in Tulsa, Okla.

What happened to her after the violation was done and the experts took over sounds like it should be standard operating procedure for sexual assaults. The sad truth is that it is a program so exceptional that it has just been given an Innovations in State and Local Government Award from the Ford Foundation and the Kennedy School at Harvard.

When, earlier this month, a rape victim in Brooklyn complained that she felt the horror of the rape had been compounded by the humiliation of the hospital, where she had to wait in an examining gown amid handcuffed male prisoners there for treatment, ordinary New Yorkers were shocked. But not those familiar with sexual assault.

Many city hospitals keep rape victims waiting for hours while the staff treats stab and gunshot wounds. The exam that a rape victim undergoes to gather forensic evidence may take as long as three hours, and it is frequently performed by a resident on rotation, who may never have done such a procedure before.

Linda Fairstein, the sex crimes prosecutor in Manhattan, remembers one exam performed by an oral surgeon because he was the only available doctor.

But a program called Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners has changed all that in Tulsa. …