Nurses, victims connect: SAFE-T program provides access to sexual assault examiners

Experts in the field of sexual assault examinations are now on hand to assist J.C. Blair’s nursing staff with cases no matter what time of day cases are brought forward.

J.C. Blair Memorial Hospital and its project partners Thursday marked the launch of the SAFE-T (Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Telehealth) program which provides J.C. Blair’s nurses with 24/7 access to expert examiners from around the state. The program is coordinated through Penn State University.

Through telehealth technology, experts will join J.C. Blair’s team of sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) via live feed to assist with victim examinations; the experts also provide peer review, plus professional and emotional support for SANEs.

Sheridan Miyamoto, principal investigator and SAFE-T Center director at Penn State, said Thursday’s launch was the culmination of 18 months of work, including a partner-selection process that started out with 20 hospitals.

J.C. Blair is one of the four hospital in Pennsylvania picked to participate with the SAFE-T program. Miyamoto said J.C. Blair is the third to go online, following Penn Highlands Healthcare in DuBois and Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Wellsboro; the fourth hospital hasn’t not yet been determined.

Miyamoto shared with the launch audience, which included representatives from local and state law enforcement and Juniata College among others, that the exam experts who will work directly with J.C. Blair’s staff number 13 and are located across the state, from Erie County to Phila- delphia County and points in-between.

“You will have 24/7 availability,” Miyamoto said. “You can provide higher quality examinations, more complete examinations and more accurate diagnosis.” She said at present, SAFE-T can assist with exams on adolescent and adult patients (age 14 and up) but noted J.C. Blair is already working toward accommodating pediatric patients through additional training.

Bill Hartsock, who is a member of the SAFE-T technical support team, said the networks and data storage used are the most secure available to ensure that patient information is protected. Hartsock added the SAFE-T team has also kept the equipment as user friendly as possible.

“We don’t want technology to be an impediment so the focus stays on patient care,” he said.

Shawn Bookhammer, J.C. Blair’s director of nursing, said the hospital would like to grow its SANE team to 10. At present, four of the hospital’s nurses are trained and three more are in training.

Bookhammer said SANE training is available only to RNs, noting J.C. Blair has a pool of about 70 RNs who would be eligible. He said while the training may not be for everyone because of the intense nature of sexual assault exams, he hopeful the support offered through the SAFE-T program will encourage nurses to step forward.

“Just because we live in a rural small town environment doesn’t mean we should have less access to health care and specialists,” he said.

RNs Candy Sonnenberg, Stephanie Stratton and Joann Goodman, who each have 20-plus years’ experience in nursing, are among J.C. Blair’s current SANE; each says she welcomes the additional support SAFE-T provides for them, and in turn, their patients in their greatest time of need.

“Prior to this program, it was hot or miss whether we had the ability to do the sexual assault exams,” Sonnenberg said, explaining not all shifts had a trained nurse in rotation. “Now our patients who come here (to J.C. Blair) can stay here in Huntingdon and not be sent to Mount Nittany or another facility for their exam.”

Sonnenberg continued that the sexual assault exam is a strenuous process for staff and patients; SANEs are trying to complete methodical evaluation and documentation while caring for a patient who has experienced the trauma of assault.

“Having that extra examiner in the room (via SAFE-T) means you’re not going it alone, you have someone to bounce ideas off of,” Sonnenberg said.

“It’s like having two brains in the room — two are better than one,” Stratton, who recently completed pediatric SANE training, said.

Joann Goodman said “debriefing” is the among the most valuable benefits of the program. Sonnenberg and Stratton agreed.

“Before, you’d take it home and internalize it,” Stratton said.

Beth Birch, director of victim services for The Abuse Network, which has serves sexual assault victims in Huntingdon, Mifflin and Juniata counties for 34 years, said having a streamlined program in place that partners local nurses working in partnership with expert examiners could go a long why toward overcoming the hurdles that discourage victims from reporting.

“There’s a lot going on that isn’t being reported (to law enforcement or medical professionals),” Birch said, turning to Huntingdon County statistics from 2017 which indicate The Abuse Network worked with 121 clients while law enforcement handled 68 cases of sexual assault. In the same time period, J.C. Blair staff saw less than 10 patients come forward for sexual assault examination.

Birch explained that the closeness of rural communities like Huntingdon County has a grim side.

“About 95 percent of sexual violence is committed by known perpetrators — not the stranger in the alley in the dark,” Birch said. “The inverse correlation is that the better you know the perpetrator, the less likely you are to report. There are no true strangers in this community.”

Funding for the program came from the Penn State University College of Nursing through a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime. In addition, Juniata College, which received its own DOJ grant for an on-campus initiative, contributed some of its funding to J.C. Blair to assist with training.