Four Different SARTs, One Simple Fact

Authored By:

Lorraine L. Davis
Chief Operating Officer & SANE Coordinator,
YWCA of Hawai`i Island, Hilo, Hawai`i
Cheryl Eleshansky
Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Coordinator, Native Village of Eyak, Cordova, Alaska
Pamela Terrill, MS, ARNP, SANE-A
SART and SANE Coordinator,
Johnson County (Iowa City),
Brooke Huber
Sexual Assault Response Team Lead. SCIT Behavioral Health, Nami Migizi Nangwiihgan

Committed coordinators build strong SARTs

SART Comp 1

Sexual Assault Response Teams (SARTs) are a community-based response to rape. A SART provides victims with necessary care and services, including medical, legal and advocacy. The team coordinates investigation and prosecution of the crime with the objective of providing justice for the victim.

The SART movement began in the 1970s, and SART numbers, now past 700 nationally, continue to grow.

The National Institute of Justice has documented that SARTS can:

  • Enhance the quality of health care for sexual assault victims;
  • Improve the quality of forensic evidence;
  • Increase law enforcement’s ability to collect information, file charges and refer to prosecution; and
  • Increase prosecution rates over time.

As SART coordinators supporting rural, tribal and urban SARTs, we know that these benefits don’t come easily. They only result from a tremendous investment in commitment, time and effort by professionals and community members alike to develop and maintain an effective SART.

The fact is that whether in rural, tribal or urban settings, implementing and operating a successful SART is a lot like running a business.

A SART needs the right human resources on the team. It needs adequate funding, and a “marketing plan” to bring the SART to the community. And it needs a hands-on administrator—the SART coordinator–to nourish the team, help keep it on target, and ensure that sexual assault response is delivered in ways that best serve victims and the community.

While our respective communities have both similar and differing needs in how our SARTs are comprised and operate, our collective experience reflects two fundamental facts.

First, there are several nearly universal obstacles and challenges involved in starting and maintaining a SART; and second, the coordinator’s primary job is to facilitate solving them.

We’d like to tell you about what we do to coordinate a SART, some of the challenges we face and ways in which we overcome them.

If you’re starting a SART, currently operating one, or are simply interested in knowing more, this blog article is for you.

The rural, tribal and urban sexual assault landscape

Communities establish SARTs to help address an array of challenges that typically surround sexual assault.

Several years ago, End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) published an excellent learning tool for communities and SART members that succinctly laid out the kinds of challenges communities face in responding to sexual assault (access the complete publication here).

Although Sexual Assault Response and Resource Teams (SARRT): a Guide for Rural and Remote Communities emphasizes rural communities, many of the challenges it identifies relate to urban areas as well:

  • Social norms that tolerate or support sexual violence;
  • Little public awareness about sexual assault and what to do if an assault occurs;
  • Few community services for victims and difficulty accessing those that are available;
  • Reluctance of victims to use existing services and report to law enforcement;
  • Inadequate interventions and prevention efforts; and
  • Fragmentation of responses across agencies to disclosures/reports of sexual assault.

To confront these issues, a SART works as “a collection of professional service providers and officials that respond essentially as a group, and in a timely fashion, to the various needs of rape victims.”

That sounds simple, but it’s actually quite complex. Forming a SART and enabling it to operate effectively is a continuing exercise in education and training, team building, collaboration, negotiation, trade-offs in resources as well as the pursuit of new or alternate resources.

A SART coordinator’s laundry list

Our principal responsibility is developing and maintaining an organizational and collaborative infrastructure that enables law enforcement, health care providers (in the form of sexual assault nurse examiners, or SANEs), victim advocates, prosecutors or other legal professionals, and sometimes other community representatives to work together to respond to rape victims and rape cases.

That’s makes for a very broad playing field. Generally speaking, here’s what we do:

  • Secure support for and participation in the SART from various community agencies, including health care, law enforcement, victim advocacy, judicial and other groups, such as child advocacy and domestic violence that have a direct or tangential stake in responding to sexual assault;
  • Develop and update guidelines, procedures and protocols for how agencies supporting the SART interact, and how the SART responds to sexual assault and victim needs;
  • Educate SART members in team collaborative procedures and inform the team about new or changing SART or sexual assault developments, guidelines or recommendations;
  • Provide the SART with a functional and secure meeting space to ensure confidentiality;
  • Facilitate periodic team meetings to discuss SART issues and individual sexual assault cases;
  • Educate the community about sexual violence and the help available for victims; and
  • Seek resources to support the SART.

The need to find, develop and leverage resources is paramount and ongoing. Typically, SART programs are short on financial resources. The SART often doesn’t have the money to accomplish everything—such as having a full-time coordinator and enough staff to support the coordinator and the team.

All of which means that the SART coordinator needs to be both a good administrator and a creative problem solver.

Problems and solutions

As part-time SART coordinators, we work hard to develop partnerships with community and other organizations that can direct some of their own resources or experience toward supporting the team.

For example, Cheryl has been able to fully equip a SART room in Cordova thanks to help from a variety of community agencies. She networks extensively with Alaska state organizations as well as others outside the state for help with protocols and procedures.

Brooke’s SART doesn’t currently include a sexual assault nurse examiner (victims are served by another program 45 minutes away). However, to help solve the problem, she’s been working with multiple community organizations including the university and hospital to establish a SANE training program. As part of that effort, she’s also secured redistribution of a portion of tribal funds to cover training a group of local RNs as SANEs.

Still, as Brooke points out, “Even with our federal grants, we cannot hire all the necessary staff, and it is tough to keep the staff we do have because of fears that grants will end, which they sometimes do.”

Even geography can pose a challenge. Cheryl’s program in Cordova serves an Alaska Native village as well as the town of Cordova with a combined population of 2,500 that grows to 5000 in the summer as transients arrive. When SANE or other SART-related service is needed at an outlying village, the cost of air transportation can be prohibitive. Maintaining a good working relationship with the state department of public safety, to enable adequate law enforcement involvement, is a partial solution.

As Cheryl candidly notes, “A lot of our challenges are budget and cost. We have to ‘beg, borrow and steal’ for the program. That’s why we have developed so many partnerships in the community.”

On the Big Island of Hawaii, Lorraine’s SART is able to maintain locations only on opposite sides of the island—meaning that at times, victims must travel 50 to 60 miles to see a SANE.

Limited funding for the Hilo SART means there’s no easy solution to the distance issue. To complicate matters, finding and retaining SANEs on the Big Island is challenging because the caseload is relatively low and nursing opportunities are more numerous and lucrative elsewhere.

“When nurses sign on as SANEs, they get the training,” Lorraine says, “but they’re often looking for full-time work. They can’t make enough being part-time SANEs, so they’re only with the program until they find full-time work.”

As a result, keeping the Hilo SANE program staffed involves an almost continuous recruitment effort.

Outreach is essential

Urban SARTs face many of the same challenges as those in rural or tribal areas. There’s not only the challenge of limited resources, but also often limited community awareness–and even resistance to the fact that sexual assault is a problem.

Consequently, in addition to administering the SART program and team and networking with community and other resources, SART coordinators are also SART ambassadors to the community at large.

In Iowa City for example, Pamela’s SART is well established and under Pamela’s leadership, there’s been 24/7 SANE coverage since 2004, but overall awareness of SART and how it benefits victims and community remains low. Getting in front of various community and medical groups and introducing the SART concept as well as asking for support is a fundamental task.

There can also be resistance in the community to hearing about the problem of sexual assault. In tribal and rural communities, prevailing attitudes and norms can mean defensiveness and silence about the problem and about reporting the crime. In urban areas, talking about rape to audiences can be discomfiting. As Pamela notes:

Until very recently, people didn’t want to be associated with sexual assault. It was a topic with an ugly face, and people didn’t want to hear about it or be associated with it as a problem in our community. The national attention that sexual assault has been receiving has begun to change that perception.

“It’s taken 30 years for people to become aware of and talk about domestic violence. I think talking freely about the problem of rape in the community is going to take some time as well.”

Every SART needs a coordinator’s spark

While the number of SARTs nationally has been growing, it’s also true that SARTs are not automatically self-sustaining.

A successful SART that effectively serves victims and the community requires a mix of dedicated team members, genuine teamwork, community awareness and support, strong relationships with key community agencies and funding sufficient to carry out the SART’s basic mission.

That’s the SART coordinator’s mission—to bring all the pieces together, and be the spark that sets the SART’s good work in motion and keeps it going.

Speaking from many combined years of experience, we can testify that the job is a challenge, but also a very satisfying one. Every victim a SART serves is one that finds the help, support and even the justice that many other victims do not.

For that reason alone, every community needs a SART. If you’re thinking about starting a SART, please do. And well before your SART holds its first team meeting, be certain there’s a coordinator on board to deliver the spark.

Editor’s Note: We’re grateful to Pam, Brooke, Lorraine and Cheryl for sharing their experiences, and hope you will share this information with your staff and community. I also welcome your feedback on how we can strengthen the SART movement. Please use the Comment feature to share your thoughts.

For additional articles on the power and impact of SARTs, click this link:

How a SART addresses the severity, complexity and impact of sexual assault—and seeks justice for victims–is powerfully portrayed in the video, Break the Silence: Sexual Assault and the SART Solution.

In the video, SART sexual assault victims in rural and Native American Communities, as well as SART members, share their experiences and how a SART has served them.

Watch the video. Download it. Share it.



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