Angels for the Abused

Members of the Kaua'i SANE/SART team (from left): nurses Jennifer Antony and Ricko Rask, domestic violence intervention coordinator Gina Kaulukukui and assistant police chief Roy Asher

Forensic nurses in a new victim-centered program work with police and prosecutors to make life less traumatic following a sexual assault

Victims of sexual assault have already been through enough trauma, emotional and physical, and having to endure a physical exam following the incident seems an unfair additional intrusion.

That’s why the work of forensic nurses such as Ricko Rask and Jennifer Antony is so vital. The two recent additions to Kaua’i’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program, Rask and Antony each have volunteered more than a year’s worth of their time to complete the training necessary to become forensic nurses. Without their volunteer training, this fundamentally important education wouldn’t occur, as there’s no funding for it.

And though the forensic nurses are paid a stipend by the county for performing the actual examinations, it’s not about the money.

“Those of us who are drawn to SANE work do it for the cause, not for any compensation,” Rask says.

And while the certification is definitely viewed as a “plus” on their resumes, the work they do serves a greater purpose: helping ease the traumatic experience for children, women and men who are victims of sexual assault.

The SANEs are part of a program created so that sexual assault victims can have access to first-response care by trained forensic nurses 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The program includes Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) partners made up of the nurses and Kaua’i Police Department, the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and victim advocates from the YWCA.

The SANE/SART process relies on the seamless coordination and teamwork by the entities involved, says Gina Kaulukukui, domestic violence intervention coordinator for KPD.

“The SART is all of us together, and is initiated once the nurse is called,” she says. “Everybody takes on their very specific roles to support the victim.”

Gina Kaulukukui in a room at KPD designed for children

It’s that kind of teamwork that helps Kaua’i victims exact justice after a crime has been committed, beginning with the forensic nurses, as they offer victims a safe, private and empathic environment for collecting physical evidence.

Kaulukukui explained that the approach to handling patients is holistic, as the patient is the center of the care, with several people ensuring that the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the victim are addressed.

“The victims are our priority,” she says.

Antony and Rask, both passionate about the SANE/SART program, have nearly completed their volunteer “preceptorship” training, which includes observing interviews, helping conduct post-sexual assault examinations, police ride-alongs and working with the Children’s Justice Center. They both were RNs for more than 15 years before beginning their forensic nursing training, shadowing seasoned SANEs as well as assisting during examinations when appropriate, Kaulukukui says, noting that their volunteer education has been both arduous and comprehensive.

“It is a huge investment of volunteered time, and that really speaks to the level of commitment these women have to this program,” she says.

In addition to being RNs, SANEs must have clean criminal histories and complete additional 40-hour classroom training along with the preceptorship, which must meet national standards.

The forensic nurses conduct the examination in an on-site cluster of rooms at KPD, a change from the method in place several years ago, assistant police chief Roy Asher says.

Asher, who as a detective had to accompany victims to the hospital emergency room, was instrumental in getting the SANE/SART program under way. Prior to the program, victims had to wait in a public area at the hospital – which was less than ideal.

“Through no fault of the emergency room doctors, the (sexual assault) victims weren’t prior-itized,” Asher says, noting that if a person with a broken leg or other kind of trauma came into the ER, they were given priority over the sexual assault victim.

Currently the county has two fully certified SANEs and three who are about to complete their training, including Rask and Antony.

“The detectives handle the legal part of it, and our SANEs are responsible for the forensic evidence piece and that the victim-patient is well-cared for,” Kaulukukui says. “Our advocate makes sure the emotional needs are tended to, including access to counseling and support groups, as well as victim witness advocates so (victims) can get that support as the prosecution takes the case and moves it forward through the court system.”

Nurses Ricko Rask and Jennifer Antony volunteered for a year to become qualified to work with SANE/SART

Given the opportunity to help ease the process for victims inspires Rask, who says the most fulfilling part of nursing is being an advocate for patients.

“Ensuring they have access to care and a solid understanding of their disease, illness or condition so they can make educated, empowered and informed choices is important,” she says.

For Antony, who has wanted to be a nurse ever since she was a child, the call to be of service to the community is something she felt obligated to do, and being part of the SANE/SART team has filled that need to help others.

“To make a difference in someone’s life is rewarding and satisfying, and fulfills that sense of duty,” she says. “As a child, I remember reading Dick and Jane books about the nurses, policemen and firemen. They were so smart and helpful. I wanted to be just like the nurse in the book. I wanted to make a difference in the world.”

Putting faces to the SANE/SART program is something Rask and Antony are proud to do, in the hope that more victims will feel encouraged to come forward and get the help they need.

“I’d hope (victims) would see us as an approachable resource and know we’re nice people out in the community,” Antony says. “We’re not scary.”

In fact, they’re just like anyone else with families and hobbies, coupled with their unique desires to go above and beyond in helping others.

When she’s not working, Antony is tending to her “two children, two schools, two jobs, two dogs, three cats, chickens and the garden,” she says. As for Rask, an avid runner who’s finished a marathon, what makes her “heart sing” is her work with Kaua’i Humane Society, which includes teaching at the year-round dog school and organizing the annual dinner and silent auction fundraiser. Plugging the event, Rask says this year the theme is “Hawaii Fido” (a spin on the hit series Hawaii Five-0).

Asher, who praised the SANEs for all their work in the community, says if there’s one element for residents to take from this program, it’s the personal care and relationships that are built between the SANE and victim.

“I commend these women for their dedication and hard work,” he says.

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