By Khnuma Simmonds, B.A., M.A.E.
Executive Director, U.S. Virgin Islands Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council
The U.S. Virgin Islands Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council (DVSAC), partnering with the Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center of St. Croix (JFL) and the Roy Lester Schneider Regional Medical Center of St. Thomas (RLS), kicked off 2020 with a full week of sexual assault forensic examiner training sessions for emergency room staff and first responders.
The training agenda, which was organized by the V.I. Sexual Assault Response Team (V.I. SART), an initiative of DVSAC, was provided by Dr. Linda Ledray of the Minneapolis, Minn.-based Sexual Assault Resource Service, and coordinated by DVSAC Sexual Assault Response Coordinator Stephanie Oriol.
Our SART has been working diligently over the last four years to improve the process for victims who elect to complete the forensic exam (aka rape kit). The process improvement drives policies intended to minimize victimization, effectively distribute and maximize resources, and increase accessibility for victims while also establishing clear roles and promoting effective communication among stakeholders.
The goal is to ease the burden of recovering from this heinous crime by responding with sensitivity, competence, and urgency. The SAFE training is just one avenue by which this is accomplished. Research shows that effective SARTs have resulted in higher reporting rates, higher percentages of prosecutions, better evidence collection, better patient cooperation, improved services for patient/victim, reduced wait times for evidentiary examinations and a better functioning system approach.
The training addressed a myriad of both practical and clinical issues including evidence collection, confidentiality and consent, chain of custody, HIV prevention, thorough documentation, crisis intervention, crisis counseling, identification of genital trauma, and the impact of evidence on criminal charges.
Challenges — such as outdated/backlogged rape kits and antiquated language on interview forms — were discussed and submitted for further review and action by the U.SV.I. SART, while emergency room clinicians had an opportunity to practice simulated exams on a human model. Simulated scenarios offered variety and ranged in complexity from examining intoxicated/incapacitated victims to cases where parental consent is required.
Despite ongoing challenges, Dr. Ledray, who has worked with the U.S.V.I. SART since its revival in 2016 and conducted training in 2018, said: “I was so pleased and excited to see how far your program has come in the two years since I was last in St Croix. Everyone has been working hard to improve services to survivors — and it shows. What a fabulous group of nurses in this class! They are knowledgeable and enthusiastic about working to make things better, one person at a time. It’s a privilege to be a part of your process.”
The first DVSAC-sponsored training, held in 2016, provided certification training on St. Croix and St. Thomas to 45 participants, including over 14 registered nurses and health care providers, with trainees representing the V.I. Islands Police Department, Bureau of Corrections, National Guard, the Frederiksted Health Clinic and DVSAC staff. In 2018, the Bureau of Corrections hosted a training with a focus on prison rape intervention and elimination, at which time human female and male models were available for clinical exams.
This year’s 40-hour certification training for DVSAC staff empowers nurses to perform forensic exams, serve as expert witnesses and qualify to take the exam for the International Association of Forensic Nurses (pending completion of additional fieldwork). The training was also attended by first responders and other community members, including the V.I. Police Department, National Guard and Partners for a Healthy Community, which assists in implementing cardiovascular health programs.
DVSAC’s ongoing coordination and ability to designate a part-time sexual assault response coordinator to coordinate training and community events — such as “The Voiceless” documentary screening on male sexual assault victims and the proclamation signing ceremony by the Honorable Governor Albert Bryan Jr. in 2019 — are made possible by the State/Territory Coalition grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office on Violence Against Women. Many thanks go out to the attendees, partners and financial contributors for supporting victims and preventing sexual assault by making this training a priority.
About the V.I. Sexual Assault Response Team: The mission of the V.I. Sexual Assault Response Team (V.I. SART) is to coordinate and implement an interagency response to sexual assault victims, which promotes consistency, respect, and cultural competency. The participating entities include representatives from the Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center of St. Croix, Roy Lester Schneider Hospital, V.I. National Guard, the V.I. Police Department, Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, Family Resource Center, the U.S. Department of Human Services, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, U.S. Department of Justice, AIDS Education and Training Center, Primary Care GYN and other agencies representing a variety of disciplines from corrections to education. There is a SART team for both the St. Croix and the St. Thomas/St. John districts; their efforts are coordinated by the V.I. Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council (DVSAC). Through the SART initiative, these agencies share community goals and purposes when investigating, prosecuting and resolving cases of sexual violence. The team has been meeting regularly since 2016 and is committed to providing leadership support for the development and implementation of interagency protocols that best serve survivors and hold offenders accountable.
About DVSAC: The V.I. Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Council (DVSAC) was formed by founding members on each island of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John in 1997 to address oppression and systems advocacy. In 2013, DVSAC became an independent organization. It is recognized as the State/Territorial Coalition by the national office on Violence Against Women and the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. DVSAC aims to promote healthy relationships within our community by coordinating education and awareness resources that advocate for eliminating domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking and dating violence in the U.S.V.I. territory to end domestic violence and sexual assault through prevention education. For more information on DVSAC’s programs, to join the SART or to volunteer for Sexual Assault Awareness Month activities in April, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org!