SANTA CRUZ -- In the hours after a rape or other sexual assault, victims can face a whirlwind of problems.
Some people hesitate to call 911 because they fear a hospital examiner won't be sensitive to what they just endured. Yet if they don't report a sex assault, the experience can haunt them for years and the perpetrator might not be brought to justice, authorities said.
The Santa Cruz County's Sexual Assault Response Team includes nurses, forensic examiners, victim advocates and members of law enforcement to help sexual assault victims at Dominican and Watsonville Community hospitals. This month is Domestic Violence Awareness Month. To raise awareness, the Santa Cruz County District Attorney's Office tracks the number of domestic violence related calls made to law enforcement in the county. Those calls are reported daily in the Sentinel. So far this month, 289 calls have been received.
No one denies being a victim of a sexual assault is a harrowing and life-changing experience. But the nurses who see the victims do everything they can to respect the victim's comfort and condition first while doing their part to collect evidence from their bodies and their clothing.
"We actually say, 'You can run the show,'" said Diane Deese, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners team. "The victim is completely in control."
Deese started to work on an early version of the team in Santa Cruz County in 1985. The Sheriff's Office took the reins in 2000 and it now includes an interdisciplinary staff from the medical, forensic, advocacy and law enforcement fields.
When any law enforcement agency in Santa Cruz County takes a report of a suspected sexual assault, they can use the team's services.
HOW IT WORKS
Victims often call 911 to report a rape or other sexual assault, or sometimes a family member will notify authorities. Victims are sometimes attacked by men who have drugged their drink at a bar, for instance, or sometimes a child has been attacked sexually and a parent reports it.
The Sexual Assault Response Team gets about three to nine cases each month.
For adult victims, police will set up the victim with an advocate from Women's Crisis Support-Defensa de Mujeres. That advocate can accompany the victim to the hospital.
Because a rapist can leave evidence of an attack on the victim, police need a hospital visit to document bruises, cuts, blood, semen and stained or ripped clothing.
"The sooner we can get the victim in, the better chance we have of preserving physical evidence," said Santa Cruz County sheriff's Sgt. Jim Ross, who supervises the Sexual Assault Response Team.
If the victim does not want to come to the hospital immediately, Deese advises them not to wash their clothing and not to shower. Although testing has improved to the point that even clothing that has been washed can yield detectable amounts of DNA, nurses said.
If the victim agrees to be examined at the hospital, the advocate usually accompanies that person and meets Deese or another nurse, who are on call 24 hours.
"The basic purpose of it is to counteract the horrific experience that the person has just gone through," said Lauren Zephro, supervisor of the team.
Just this week, the Sexual Assault Response Team's work resulted in a 65-year to life sentence for a man who raped a 23-year-old woman at knife point at the Kind Grind Coffee Shop in Santa Cruz in 2008.
Just hours after that extreme, morning attack, Deese examined the young woman.
In a painstaking collection process, Deese was able to collect semen from the attacker that later provided a DNA link to the perpetrator, who was arrested and convicted in a 2012 trial.
The victim didn't know the man, but the DNA match helped authorities solve the case.
"She came literally straight from the incident. It doesn't happen that often," Deese said.
Cathy Chase Bautista, a registered nurse on the Sexual Assault Response Team, said while some attacks are random and unavoidable, there are things women can do to be on the alert.
It's wise to count the number of drinks consumed while out at night, she said, and avoid trying to drink as much as men who weigh more and have higher tolerances. Keep an eye on drinks at all times in a bar to avoid having it drugged.
She urged victims to have the courage to seek help. Rapists often are repeat offenders, and speaking up can stop more people from being victimized.
Not reporting it can lead to other problems including eating disorders, depression or post traumatic stress disorder, among other things, she said.
"It's wise to get treatment and support, because it's such a grave invasion," she said.
To report an attack, call 911.
Follow Sentinel reporter Stephen Baxter at Twitter.com/sbaxter--sc
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