Survivors of sexual assault in Southern Arizona now have one less barrier when it comes to receiving support, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Tucson's second medical forensic exam site opened last week in Banner-University Medical Center Tucson, and officials say patients have already made use of the space. The site, several years in the works, finally came to fruition as a result of the grant, awarded through the Office for Victims of Crime.
In Arizona, in order for evidence from a survivor's sexual assault kit to be admissible in court, the exam must have been completed by a certified sexual assault nurse examiner.
Previously, victims of sexual assault who wanted to obtain a medical forensic exam had to go to Tucson Medical Center, where they would be met by a sexual assault forensic examiner affiliated with the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault.
For victims who sought treatment for the assault or related injuries at a hospital other than TMC, having to transfer to another hospital was an additional barrier, and one that could lend itself to re-traumatization of the survivor, experts say.
By staying at one hospital, survivors won't have to fill out two sets of forms, give their information twice or tell their story again.
The Banner site is available to University of Arizona students, UA employees and the community at large. The exam room is located within the emergency department, but there is a separate, quiet room for survivors to use while they are waiting for the exam.
"If you do end up coming here, it's got to be one of the most traumatic days in your life, and having one place where you'll get your medical care, someone will walk you through the forensic-legal side of the process in a caring manner, and not having to be disrupted, pulled up and go to a different location for potentially a forensic exam is going to be really beneficial for our survivor patients," said Dr. Nathaniel Johnson, an emergency department doctor who is part of the Banner team that made the exam room happen.
Many victims go to the closest hospital, which for UA students is Banner. Having to travel to another hospital increases the likelihood a person might opt out of a medical forensic exam and the collection of a sexual assault kit.
"That proximity to the university we hope will really help. I've worked at both of the facilities and I've seen it from both sides, and it's always been a huge gap in our services," said Dr. Melissa Zukowski, director of Banner's emergency department. "The worry was always, does everybody really make it there, or do they just get re-traumatized and say: 'I'm done. I can't go to another facility.'"
Just being able to offer the service on site, whether or not victims choose to accept it, is significant, Zukowski said.
She said the idea gained traction in recent years, after a Banner Foundation grant allowed her, Johnson and Dr. Dale Woolridge to spend time planning and preparing for the space. It also covered the cost of some additional equipment, including a scope and exam chair.
"We were just not willing to give up. This is such an important service that we really need to have to best support the survivor," Zukowski said.
Johnson said the project is a collaborative effort.
"This is not meant to be in competition with any other services in town. It's meant to augment them," Johnson said.
The Justice Department grant will also fund the creation of a Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART, made up of experts from the UA, Banner and the community, who will guide the program to ensure it meets survivors' needs.
The UA is one of eight universities in the country to receive the grant funding, which is meant to ensure the expansion of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner programs that offer medical forensic care, as well as advocacy and other victim services. Nearly $4 million in funding was awarded.
While Tucson has an existing community-based SART and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, who perform exams in community hospitals, those services are not typically based on college campuses, said Elise Lopez, director of the UA's Consortium on Gender-Based Violence and principal investigator for the grant.
"You have these two disparate things that are usually community-based responses to sexual assault, and they don't necessarily talk together very much," Lopez said. "What the Office of Victims of Crime is very interested in is finding a way to increase access to sexual assault forensic exams for college students."
With a huge focus over the last five to 10 years on campus sexual assault, much of the conversation has been focused on prevention and investigative aspects.
"One thing that's really been left out are the acute services that survivors need, especially college students who are often young and maybe don't have a lot of life experience navigating systems on their own," Lopez said. "Many times, a person may be unsure in that moment of if they want to press charges. Sometimes, a survivor gets the sexual assault forensic exam, the evidence is stored, and then a few months later they decide: 'I do want the kit to get tested. I do want to pursue the justice system with this.'"
UA's Sexual Assault Response Team will be run by the consortium and overseen by Lopez.
The UA team will send out surveys to students about their empowerment needs and is looking to hear from survivors about what they want and need.
"We're so excited to have a new way to support survivors," said SACASA supervisor Katlyn Monje. "We fully recognize that we are a university town. We have so many college students here, and so many live on or near campus.
"We also know that the vast majority of individuals who are assaulted are college-aged. This really does bring additional services closer to student survivors."
SACASA still has a need for more certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, especially with the number of assaults on the rise.
"We ideally would love to be able to respond to two hospitals or more at the same time, both with advocates and nurses, but we're not quite at that capacity," Monje said, adding that SACASA is continuously recruiting advocates and examiners. For now, SACASA does not have the staffing to send advocates and examiners to both TMC and Banner-UMC simultaneously.
The grant will cover the cost of some advocates and examiners, and a state mandate requires that the county fund exams and on-call time for examiners. SACASA says its partnership with the county's behavioral health department means the cost of the exams and some of the on-call time is covered, but additional funding is still needed.
Monje said it's important to believe survivors when they share their story, let them go at their own pace, and give them space. But it's just as important to make sure they know support and resources are available in the community.
"As much as we wish this is a program that we wish never needed ever to be used, we recognize that there will be a need," Zukowski said. "This gives the survivor a choice. Wherever they seek that care to get what they need and empower them as a survivor and take control back for what has happened I think is incredibly important."
Contact Star reporter Caitlin Schmidt at 573-4191 or email@example.com. On Twitter: @caitlincschmidt