TOWSON – Rape victims will no longer have to wait – often for hours – for an examination room to open up in the hospital or suffer the potential embarrassment of being identified by someone they know while waiting in the emergency room thanks to new facilities at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.
The hospital now has a four-room suite exclusively for treating victims of rape and preserving vital evidence of the crime located in an unassuming beige hallway off the Emergency Department wing.
“Everyone knows someone – a friend, a sister, a daughter – who’s been the victim of sexual assault,” said Christine Hsiao, a GBMC nurse who works on-call for the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination, or SAFE, program 40-60 hours a week.
“We want people to know they don’t have to sit out there with everyone staring at them.”
Before the rape treatment suite was opened, victims had to wait in the emergency room until an examination room opened up. They were often accompanied in the waiting room by a police officer, whose presence tended to call attention to the victim.
The newly constructed facilities have an interview room where police can discuss details of the assault with the victim, an examination room for evidence collection, an office space and a bathroom where victims can shower.
“It’s a safer location where the victim can go. We can conduct an interview where we know we won’t get interrupted,” said Baltimore County Detective Paul Merryman, who has been doing rape investigation with SAFE units since 1998.
The GBMC SAFE program, the only one in Baltimore County, started in 1988. There are 20 others in Maryland, but not all have the degree of privacy that GBMC’s new suite affords.
“SAFE trained regular nurses in forensic collection. [It] made a huge difference in the quality of evidence collected from the victims,” said Leslie Anderson, the SAFE coordinator at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore City.
The SAFE program treats victims 13 and older. Nurses from the GBMC program have collected evidence from 250 rape victims since 2004.
The new facilities took four months to build and officially opened on October 16.
Before the new SAFE rooms were built at GMBC, “It depended what room was available – sometimes it was quick and sometimes it took hours,” said forensic nurse Linda Kelly.
Without any centralized facilities for SAFE nurses, conducting exams was often frustrating.
“It was difficult because we didn’t have an exam room, we had an office” where everything – evidence, equipment and new clothes for the victim – had to be stored, said Hsiao, standing in the new SAFE examination room.
The exam room looks like something out of CSI. On a papered examination table is a Handscope Xenon forensic light used to enhance observations of any physical evidence left on the victim like hairs or bite marks; next to it are the red, orange, yellow and UV white goggles used with the scope.
“Our victim is also our crime scene,” said Detective Merryman, explaining the importance of gathering forensic evidence.
A computer sits a few feet away from the exam table. GBMC was the first hospital to digitize rape case details using Thorough Assault Case Tracking software so that cases could be recorded and compared.
“To be able to do everything in one room really expedited the process,” said Kelly, who treated her first rape victim in the new SAFE facilities a few days after it opened.
“It’s nice because here there’s privacy and it’s fully functional,” Kelly said motioning to the computer and exam table.
“We were able to document everything right here,” she said.
Kelly and several of the other forensic nurses mingled with members of the Baltimore County police and attorney general’s office to celebrate the opening of the newly constructed SAFE facilities on Wednesday night.
Both Democratic and Republican candidates for state’s attorney, Scott Shellenberger and Steve Bailey attended the reception.
“Nothing makes a greater difference than forensic evidence” when trying intimate partner rape cases, said Bailey who currently serves as the deputy state’s attorney and has experience prosecuting sexual assault offenders.
Ultimately, the SAFE program has shown results and the new facilities may help to encourage women to come in for a forensic exam after a sexual assault, leading to the greater chance of an arrest and conviction. “The care [SAFE nurses] give is not only evidence collection for prosecution but also part of a larger healing process the victims have to go through,” said Jennifer Pollitt Hill, the executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.