Forensic nurse examiners decode puzzle of sexual assault

When someone who has been sexually assaulted calls the Vancouver Island Crisis Line, they are directed to one of 30 forensic nurse examiners

Janet Calnan

Every sexual assault case that Janet Calnan works on is like a complex puzzle.

As a forensic nurse examiner with Island Health, each case is different, but common to all is learning what happened to the woman or man sitting on the table in front of her.

“My job is to meld the medical and judicial system together where I can link the two back and forth,” said Calnan, co-ordinator for the forensic nurse examiner program for the South Island.

When women or men who have been sexually assaulted call the Vancouver Island Crisis Line, they are directed to one of 30 forensic nurse examiners across the Island.

Victims have three options: they can receive medical care or medical care and forensic collection of evidence that is securely stored for a year, meaning they don’t have to speak to the police right away, but have the opportunity to do so in the future. The third option is medical care and forensic collection with evidence given to police.

Should a patient opt for forensic collection, Calnan’s work begins, documenting injuries and collecting swabs from the body surface.

Calnan’s job is not to say whether or not the victim is telling the truth, but to look at the evidence presented before her, both objectively and subjectively.

For example, if a patient who was sexually assaulted said they were choked as well, Calnan would look for changes in their voice, bruising and pattern of bruising, which would tell her what the patient was being choked with, such as a hand, belt or piece of rope. If someone was attacked on the Galloping Goose, she would look for debris.

“Those help corroborate their story,” said Calnan, adding most patients she sees who have been sexually assaulted have no injuries. But she’s also seen patients come in with more than 100 documented injuries.

“It’s not my job to decide if he or she is telling the truth, but to collect the data and the evidence that goes with their story.”

Island Health’s forensic nurse examiner program began in Victoria in 1996, modelled after a similar program at Surrey Memorial Hospital. In the past, people who had been sexually assaulted had to go to emergency rooms for physicians to see them. They often waited hours and many women would leave without getting help. Now, a call to the crisis line lets them be seen by examiners more quickly.

As part of the program, examiners also deal with child maltreatment, interpersonal violence, and provide patients with legal services beyond the examination room. Throughout the year, forensic nurse examiners see roughly 100 to 125 patients.

Now, the program is expanding to offer 24-hour support around the Island with more nurses being trained.

With the opening of the Victoria Sexual Assault Centre on Cedar Hill Road earlier this year, Calnan is optimistic more victims of sexual assault will come forward, adding only one third of the cases she sees are reported to police.

“One of the deterrents to people to be seen is they don’t want to go to an emergency room … it’s intimidating,” she said, noting most of the time, a person is sexually assaulted by someone they know. “Just being able to say something happened, I want to look after myself because I want the power to look after myself, just makes a huge difference to our patients and their outcome.”

Reach the Vancouver Island Crisis Line at 1-888-494-3888.

 

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