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Chain of evidence, chain of compassion 

The pain that sexual assault victims face is different than that faced by victims of other crimes.

They need special handling and care, and thanks to a dedicated group of law enforcement, medical and social agencies in Chatham County, they are getting it.

“The Rape Crisis Center really is the thread running through the whole process,” says Mary McAlister, director of the Rape Crisis Center.

“There was a time when there was no Rape Crisis Center,” McAlister says. “Thirty years ago, friends of a woman who was raped found there was nothing for her and started a group.”

McAlister was one of those early volunteers. “We work with people of all ages and all walks of life,” she says. “We’re there 24 hours, seven days a week with our crisis line.”

Whenever a sexual assault is reported, the Rape Crisis Center is called. Volunteers are on call 24 hours a day to be with victims as they go through treatment at the hospital, and later, to help them navigate the court system and beyond.

Sexual assault victims are taken to Candler Hospital, where they receive specialized care from Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, or SANE nurses. “Candler has give us a separate examining room,” McAlister says.

“The nurses go through intensive training to learn how to collect forensic evidence,”she says. “The victim advocate is trained to give the victim support and help them understand what is going on.”

Volunteers even see to it that the victim gets prescriptions filled and has a way home. “The whole focus is on the victim,” McAlister says. “The advocate will follow her through the whole process.”

Unfortunately, the need is great. In 2003, the Rape Crisis Center helped 745 people. Of them, 128 were children, 407 were adults and 210 were family and friends of victims.

Dr. Mary Sparkes is the medical director of the SANE program. She did her first rape examination as an intern in Jacksonville.

“I was told it would be a good thing to learn how to do a sexual assault exam,” Sparkes says. “It was a real eye-opening experience.”

After her residency, Sparkes took a job in Savannah. “There were only two of us girls in a group of some 40 physicians,” she says.

“When sexual assault victims came in, I would try to take their exams because I thought they might be more comfortable with someone of the same gender,”Sparkes says. “Igot to know several people from the Rape Crisis Center and SANE.”

SANE nurses receive extensive training. “They do 40 hours of book work and 80 hours of training,”Sparkes says.

Usually, the Rape Crisis Center victim’s advocate is first on the scene when the victim arrives at the hospital. “The SANEnurse is second,”Sparkes says.

“Sometimes, a victim comes in who doesn’t want to see a doctor,”she says. “She can have whatever she needs. If she wishes, she will only be seen by the SANEnurse. Unless there are injuries, if she wishes, she need not see me.”

The first links in the chain are support and treatment, the next is investigation of the crime. Sgt. Harry Trawick of the Savannah Chatham Metropolitan Police heads the Special Victim’s Unit.

“Currently, I supervise five detectives,”Trawick says. “Chatham County and Savannah, for such a small place, keeps us busy. There is a large number of sexual assault cases. They seem to be occurring in some areas more than others.”

Today, rape victims are more likely to be treated with compassion than in years past. At one time, there was no cooperation between police and social agencies that dealt with rape victims. “That started changing in 1986,” Trawick says.

A group was formed to deal with child sexual abuse cases. “We realized in law enforcement that in general the victim is not someone like any other kind of victim,” Trawick says. “This is not something the victim can undo, it is something the person has to live with for the rest of their life.”

There is no case without a victim’s cooperation. Reducing trauma helps police in their effort to get victims to cooperate -- or even to report the rape in the first place.

Some victims go to the Rape Crisis Center for help, but do not want police called or to press charges against a suspect. In those cases, their wishes are honored.

The police department has a specific policy in place for rape investigations. It begins with the communications specialist who takes the initial call for help.

Recently, a suspect was arrested because of a communication specialist’s efforts. A 14-year-old girl reported she had been abducted and raped. By keeping the girl on the line and carefully asking questions about her surroundings, the specialist was able to get enough information so officers could find the girl -- and arrest the suspect.

“We’re focusing on how the victims feel as opposed to getting there and getting it done and getting back on the street,” Trawick says. “Two police officers and a supervisor are sent on every sexual assault case. That’s how important these cases are.

“We are the first step in the healing process, or we’re one more trauma the victim must endure,”he says. “The police officer’s responsibility is establishing the investigation and getting the victim to the hospital, then calling one of my detectives.”

At the hospital, the detective will conduct a fairly brief interview with the victim. “At one time, all victims went to Memorial,”Trawick says. “We got whatever doctor was available. Some were dedicated, but when accident victims started coming in, they didn’t have time for the rape victims.”

When suspects are arrested, they must be prosecuted. Assistant District Attorney Nancy Gray Smith handles all felony sexual assault cases in Chatham county, as well as all cases of domestic violence against women.

“We are putting these crimes with just one person,” Smith says. “These are special crimes. The victims need special attention. By having one attorney handle all the cases, the victims can get special attention.”

Savannah is lucky to have the SANEprogram in place, Smith says. “There are so many jurisdictions I’ve worked in that don’t have SANE nurses,”she says.

It is essential to collect evidence to get a prosecution, Smith says. “The victim is the crime scene in the case,”she says.

“The place where the crime occurred and the scene of her body are important,” Smith says. “Thanks to the SANEprogram, these nurses are trained to look for all evidence.”

When a suspect is arrested, he will get a preliminary hearing. “The victim is subpoenaed to it, but because of the nature of the crime, we always have an advocate with her,” Smith says. “We try to put the case at the end of the docket so the courtroom is cleared.”

After the preliminary hearing, all evidence is put together and taken to the grand jury. If the grand jury returns a true bill, the case will go to trial. If the grand jury returns a no bill, that means there was not enough evidence to proceed with a trial.

Because cases are long and involved, the victim advocate keeps the victim advised of all court proceedings and tells her which ones she must attend.

Smith says it is amazing to watch the entire process. “Our conviction rate is pretty good,” she says. “We put a lot of rapists in prison.”

McAlister urges all women to trust their instincts. “Rapes happen in isolation,” she says. “If a situation just doesn’t feel right, get out.”

The Rape Crisis Center holds a Roaring Twenties Gala on Friday, April 30 at 7 p.m. at the Mackey House. Tickets are $75. There will be a silent auction and a previously owned Saturn will be raffled off. Roaring ‘20s dress is encouraged. For information call 233-3000.

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Linda Sickler

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