Sexual Assault Protocol Committee aims for better resources, care to victims

tstevens@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 17, 2014 

For Kyle Bair, director of the Sexual Assault Support Center, supporting victims of sexual assault throughout the judicial process is crucial.

But without unifying guidelines in place for law enforcement and judicial agencies, victims can sometimes be left without proper resources — exactly the problem the newly formed Chattahoochee Judicial District's Sexual Assault Protocol Subcommittee hopes to address.

The eight-person subcommittee met for the first time in Nov. 5 to draft protocol that will be used to assist law enforcement, medical and judicial workers in Muscogee, Chattahoochee, Talbot, Mario, Taylor and Marion counties.

Georgia Legislature mandated that sexual assault protocol committees be formed in each judicial circuit in 2004, but it wasn't until Judge Gil McBride provided a home for the committee that law enforcement, health and judicial workers were able to begin.

The committee will provide educational resources for agencies so that sexual assault victims can receive adequate care and support throughout the reporting process.

One part of that education is dispelling myths and biases about sexual assault that can be damaging to the victim, especially in male dominated fields such as law enforcement, Bair said.

"There are just these social attitudes and myths and beliefs that hinder sometimes the provision of services," Bair said. "One of the things we tend to do is, instead of investigating what the victim says with the possibility that it actually happened, we tend to want to disprove the victim"

By creating these guidelines, the committee also hopes to help medical professionals handle sexual assault cases. In some counties, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners handle the collection of evidence when a victim comes forward.

But there are not enough SANE nurses to meet demand, so emergency professionals who are not trained to handle sexual assault cases are often are left with the task.

"It might be the first time they've ever touched a rape kit," Georgia Department of Health representative and committee member Tori Endres said. Endres is also SANE certified. "They might be reading the instructions as they're performing it."

Education also includes telling victims about nearby support centers like Bair's, where victims can find therapeutic services, as well as advocates who can assist those who choose to press charges.

"I get very few victims from the outlying counties," Bair said. "This is going to at least put some accountability out there for agencies — health care, law enforcement, service provider — to make sure that that's going to be done for victims."

Committee members also hope to create a system which makes it harder for sexual assault cases to be overlooked during the judicial process. Some cases are postponed for years before they come to trial, which can make it harder for victims to have faith in the judicial system, Columbus State University Director of Student Health Services Rebecca Tew said.

"I think sometimes in an already overtaxed judicial system we think 'It's just a rape,'" Tew said. "It just gets pushed to the bottom of the rung. If it's been two years since someone's been arrested and they're still sitting in jail, what is that victim going through? They never got any closure. There's no trial."

At the moment, the protocol guidelines are still being drafted. But once they are released, they will provide guidelines the committee hopes will make it easier for agencies to collaborate and minimize harm to victims.

"This will be a tool for every responder, whether it's medical, personnel, law enforcement, assistant district attorneys or prosecution," Bair said. "It will be a tool for victim advocacy for every agency to be able to provide the best services possible."

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