Finding help and support for victims of abuse is the mission of the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center, but a scarcity of specialized sexual assault nurses in the Central Texas region has required them to find alternative help for sexual assault victims.
The organization was formed in 1978 by a group of women who wanted to help victims of domestic violence.
“Quickly after learning about domestic violence they saw there was a connection between that and sexual assault,” said Melissa Rodriguez, director of development and community partnerships.
Volunteers originally ran the organization and eventually the members applied for funding and acquired a headquarters to establish a formal location. In 1997, the Hays-Caldwell Women’s Center made child abuse prevention a formalized area of assistance within the organization.
“It was kind of a natural development that the agency took on that program as well,” said Rodriguez.
The center assists women, men and children who suffer from abuse by providing counseling sessions, shelter and advocacy. Rodriguez said another one of the organization’s on-going goals is to quell common misconceptions that men cannot be victims of abuse, perpetrators can be easily identified and that assault is easily forgotten.
“It’s really complex and it requires a lot of work to restore an individual,” said Rodriguez. “Every person deserves to have a life where they’re free from violence and can be a healthy productive member of our community.”
One of the issues that complicates the center’s assistance program at times is the lack of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners or SANE nurses. The surrounding hospitals in San Marcos do not have dedicated SANE nurses to provide immediate aid to victims of sexual assault.
“It’s very difficult to find interested nurses period and then to support them,” said Rodriguez. “We do have nurses who are trained and are good at what they do, but to have a support network for them is what’s complicated.”
The process of becoming a SANE nurse is extensive and autonomous, said Linda Witte, a SANE nurse at Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital in San Antonio.
“It takes quite a bit of further training and these nurses are specialized in that,” said Witte. “They really need a lot of experience in trauma because they work almost independent of a physician.”
Sixty-four hours of class, 20 hours of pediatric work, 24 hours of optician work, 16 hours of court time to hear proceedings related to sexual assault, six adult SANE exams and 10 pediatric exams, all in nine months, are what is required for a nurse to become SANE certified. That is in addition to becoming a registered nurse in two years.
Due to the local shortage of SANE nurses, it’s not uncommon for medical staff in the area to send victims of sexual assault to hospitals farther away to get the sexual assault examination done.
“We go to the hospital and support them through the whole process,” Rodriguez said. “There have been lots of times where we go to the hospital and there’s no SANE nurse and so we have to go to a different hospital. There have been some victims that have just said, ‘forget it.’”
Roxanne’s House, the center’s building for child abuse prevention, is also the center’s SANE location, but the deficiency of dedicated nurses remains the primary issue. The HCWC’s solution to this has been to have a contact list of SANE nurses and a schedule of when they are on-call for assistance.
“We can help coordinate between the law enforcement agency and the hospitals to know where to get the victim,” said Rodriguez.
The lack of SANE hospitals in Texas prompted the Texas Senate to pass S.B. 1191 in 2013 which states:
“An act relating to the duties of health care facilities, health care providers, and the Department of State Health Services with respect to care provided to a sexual assault survivor in an emergency department of a health care facility.”
The bill requires all hospitals who are equipped with emergency room facilities to have staff with basic forensic knowledge of evidence testing for sexual assault victims.
Witte said although the bill’s intentions were moral, it creates a new issue with nurses giving exams who are not fully adept at the procedure and could potentially cause legal liability issues for them and the hospitals.
“It’s throwing these nurses under the bus when it comes to the court,” Witte said. “The jury is going to tear them apart because they don’t have the expertise that the SANEs have.”
Witte said her supervisor has begun traveling to hospitals to establish training programs to give nurses more assistance in the examination process.
If a nurse does become certified, they are almost forced to move outside of the San Marcos area since there is no facility in the area that houses their expertise. Rodriguez said Seton Kyle is looking into a possible SANE program, but it will take time for a hospital to dedicate their funding to the program.
“It’s an expensive investment and there are so many needs elsewhere,” Rodriguez said. “No one’s quite stepped up to make that commitment.”
When dealing with sensitive and complex issues like sexual assault and domestic abuse, it takes a very special personality to appropriately interact with victims.
“We are looking for people who are dedicated, compassionate individuals,” said Katie Shaw, the volunteer coordinator at HCWC. “Many of our volunteers end up doing direct services work so they may be helping a victim who’s in crisis, responding to our hotline or going to a hospital. Those people need to be really mature.”
Like Shaw, many start off as volunteers for the organization and later become fully invested members.
“Sometimes people know right away that they don’t want to do child care or office work,” Shaw said. Everyone has their own comfort level.”
Shaw said the organization’s volunteer responsibilities range from handling the facility’s 24-hour hotline to landscaping.
The next volunteer training session is set for Sept 2.
The HCWC hopes to soon partner with Texas State University to form a formalized program aimed at educating students on sexual and dating violence.