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SPRINGDALE — Three centers and a health system in Northwest Arkansas have partnered to provide better care for victims of sexual assault.

Mercy Northwest Arkansas, the Northwest Arkansas Center for Sexual Assault, the Children’s Safety Center of Washington County and the Children’s Advocacy Center of Benton County all chipped in this summer to hire a regional coordinator to oversee the centers’ sexual assault nurse examiners.

These specially trained nurses care for assault victims and gather evidence for prosecuting the perpetrators. Before the cooperation began, the centers would often call on the region’s handful of nurse examiners at the same time. The lack of coordination delayed patient visits when every passing minute affected both the victim and the evidence, said Dawn Thompson, a nurse examiner who came from Little Rock to take on the coordinator position in June.

Now all three centers’ examiner schedules and calls go through one place. Thompson and two other examiners also have joined the centers’ shared examiner pool, bringing their number to eight. She said both of those actions mean Northwest Arkansas victims at any time of day can now see an examiner within an hour of their arrival at the centers.

“The fact that we have a coordinated response is such a gift,” said Anne Shelley, executive director at the Center for Sexual Assault. “Just getting that particular piece of the investigation done in a compassionate setting in a timely manner is, we consider, part of the healing process.”

Thompson said she hopes to gradually help address other concerns in the area’s sexual assault services, such as nurse examiner burnout and their low number. She plans to start training a few interested nurses next month to work with child and adult victims. Her team also provides a network of mentors and peers for those in this line of work.

“It is a difficult thing to take on another person’s burden of their trauma,” Thompson said in an interview last month. “Most people really just want to help.”

A common need

Sexual assault under state law includes sexual contact made by force or with a victim who can’t consent because of age, mental status or position under the perpetrator’s authority, as with sexual acts between a teacher and a student or a prison inmate and a guard.

The U.S. Department of Justice reports more than 300,000 Americans were victims of rape or other sexual assault in 2016, often by a perpetrator they knew. Many victims never report the crimes to police because of fear of reprisal, shame or other factors. Victims also often know the offender.

More people who’ve experienced assault seem to be coming forward in the past year or so as well, said Monie Johnson, executive director of the Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

“Some of those victims, their assault happened years ago, and they’re just coming in looking for someone to talk to,” Johnson said. She credited the “#metoo” movement, in which victims throughout the country have come forward to say they’ve experienced the problem and to push for their attackers, including several celebrities, to be brought to justice.

The Arkansas coalition has trained dozens of examiners without charge in the past three years, particularly in rural areas, but its $550,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant for the work runs out this month.

A shortage of nurse examiners compounds itself, because the training for their certification requires time spent in a clinical setting with a supervisor, Thompson said. She trained her team’s other two new members years ago — it took them this long to accumulate that clinical time when it should typically take a few months, she said. Thompson’s team can provide that supervision going forward.

Not all sexual assault victims see a trained nurse examiner, but an examiner brings expertise in trauma, talking with and supporting people in moments of crisis and gathering evidence police and prosecutors need to have successful cases, Thompson and Johnson added.

“There’s just so many things that they glean from attending that training that a regular registered nurse would not know,” Johnson said.

Local protocol

Shelley said the three Northwest Arkansas centers encountered around 400 assault or abuse cases combined last year. Others likely went to other hospitals or clinics in the area. Washington Regional, for example, employs a sexual assault nurse examiner in its emergency department, spokeswoman Natalie Hardin said in an email.

The department will check for medical emergencies, then evidence will be collected either at the hospital or at a sexual assault center, depending on what the patient wants and his or her condition, Hardin wrote.

Northwest Health and Mercy also check for health emergencies, but leave the sexual assault-focused exam to the Center for Sexual Assault, at least for adult victims, hospital spokeswomen said.

Health care providers must report child abuse cases to a state hotline. Hotline workers arrange examinations and other care at places like the local children’s centers, Johnson said.

Thompson, a Mercy employee, said she plans to work with all local hospitals and clinics to create a consistent system for caring for sexual assault victims no matter where they show up first. When asked later what that protocol might look like, Mercy spokeswoman Jennifer Cook said one hasn’t been finalized and will likely take several months to create.

The key is to make sure victims who go to a hospital can get immediate care even if they have to go to a center, rather than needing to set up an appointment, Johnson said.

“If they’re turned away and told to make an appointment, they’re probably not going to get the kit done,” she said, referring to the sexual assault kit examiners use to gather evidence of assault. She said she’s heard recent complaints about the issue from people in Northwest Arkansas, meaning there’s still room for improvement.

Johnson added the coalition always encourages sexual assault centers to work together if possible.

“We always serve victims better when we all know what the other hand is doing,” she said.

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