Handling of rape cases questioned

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By David Giuliani

Alta Vista Regional Hospital may not have followed its own policy in handling a rape victim in November.

The hospital is supposed to provide alternatives to rape victims when they arrive at the emergency room, said Joan Krohn, a member of Women’s Health Advocates, a group of nurses, social workers and residents.

The local hospital has rape kits that help prosecutors prove rapes, while St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in Santa Fe has nurses certified in examining sexual assaults, she said.

Krohn contends that the hospital didn’t follow a policy created in May in that crisis rape services were not called after an alleged Highlands University rape victim showed up in the emergency room. She said the 18-year-old student was also denied services and not given the choice of having care at the hospital.

However, Richard Grogan, the hospital’s CEO, said Alta Vista couldn’t substantiate those allegations. He said nurses give rape victims their options.

“We’ve met with Joan on multiple occasions,” he said. “We keep explaining to her the same thing. She doesn’t like our answer.”

Krohn said the quality of care provided by sexual assault nurse examiners, or SANE nurses, in Santa Fe is one choice but that Alta Vista isn’t holding up its end of the community-coordinated response. “Refusing care in the ER is not the answer,” she said.

According to a Highlands University police Officer Donato Sena’s report, he asked an attending nurse in the emergency room to proceed with getting evidence from the victim and to call the rape crisis counselor. But the officer stated that he was told by the nurse that Alta Vista doesn’t provide those services and that the victim had to be taken to St. Vincent.

“When the victim heard this, she told me she was not going all that way and changed her mind about pursuing charges,” Sena said in his report. “She was no longer cooperative. She left the hospital with friends. State police were called, but they also were unsuccessful in getting the victim to cooperate. Case was closed.”

The victim had said she had been raped and knew the suspect, according to Sena’s report.

Grogan said the officer wouldn’t have known firsthand about the nurse’s statements to the victim because he wouldn’t have been in the room.

“She (victim) was given a choice. She decided to leave rather than go to Santa Fe,” he said.

Grogan said hospitals in bigger cities such as Santa Fe struggle to keep their nurses trained for SANE certifications. The challenge is even greater for smaller towns such as Las Vegas, he said.

Last week, the city’s public safety advisory committee generally agreed to recommend the City Council approve a letter to the hospital expressing concern about its handling of the November case.

“It seems in the interest of public safety that medical, social and legal services come together to clarify the roles and responsibilities each would play in the response process,” the proposed letter states.

At the meeting, Police Chief Gary Gold said he didn’t want it to appear as if the city were telling the private hospital what to do, which he said may cause Alta Vista to get defensive.

“They could say, ‘You run the city. We run the hospital,’” the chief said.

But Pat Leahan, the committee’s co-chairwoman, said the community should be concerned with how the hospital handles rape victims.

“We’ve been struggling with this for over a year,” she said.

Harry Anderson, another committee member, said he wanted to encourage Gold to change his view.

“They (Alta Vista) operate on a license granted by us citizens. I’m not suggesting that we be a bully, but they had better listen,” he said.

The City Council is expected to a consider the proposed letter.

Excerpts from Alta Vista’s policy

• Emergency department will follow state and hospital regulations regarding sexual assault survivors.

• The survivor of an alleged sexual assault should be examined as soon as possible upon arrival to minimize physical and psychological injuries.

• All patients presenting to the emergency department with complaints of sexual abuse will be accompanied to a private room and confidentiality will be ensured throughout the proceeding.

• The crisis worker will be called immediately upon the patient’s presentation and will accompany the patient at all times to the degree that both patient and crisis worker are comfortable. The crisis worker will act as the patient’s advocate, assisting in decisions regarding care.

• Primary assessment of patients under the age of 13 will be done in the emergency department. The emergency department personnel will consult the SANE (sexual assault nurse examiner) nurse on call in Santa Fe to arrange a complete sexual assault exam.

• Adult patients will be given the option of referral to the SANE program in Santa Fe for their exam, or having an exam done at Alta Vista. The patient will be given information regarding benefits and disadvantages of both and will make their decision with the help of the crisis worker.

• Those patients choosing to be seen by the SANE nurse in Santa Fe should be transported by law enforcement to safeguard the chain of evidence.