Panel details sexual assault exam, victim trauma

Thursday, April 10, 2014 | 10:50 p.m. CDT; updated 12:09 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 27, 2014

COLUMBIA — The sexual assault clinic at University Hospital conducts between 120 and 150 sexual assault exams every year, Lesli Briggs said during the Sexual Assault Medical Panel at MU's Relationship and Sexual Violence Center on Thursday.

Briggs, who is a sexual assault nurse examiner, has been working at University Hospital for more than eight years, helping victims through sexual assault exams and training other nurses to care for them.

More Sexual Assault Awareness Month events

The panel was a part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming at MU. Other Sexual Assault Awareness month events include:

  • The Angel Band Project: Using music therapy to help sexual assault victims. The event will be at 2 p.m. Tuesday at Jesse Wrench Auditorium.
  • Denim Day: Wear denim to support rape and sexual assault victims. Denim Day activities will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 24 on Lowry Mall .
  • Fifth Annual Freedom Walk: Register to walk against human trafficking. The walk will be at 2 p.m. April 27 at Stephens Lake Park.

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She was among three panelists answering questions focused on the medical side of sexual assault at the event. The panelists answered audience questions about available resources, how to help those who have experienced sexual assault and common problems sexual assault victims experience.

Tammy Hickman, a former hospital advocate for True North, and Dominique Malebranche, an MU doctoral student who is an intern at True North, joined Briggs on the panel.

As a domestic assault survivor, Hickman said talking about her experience helped her heal, but she cannot speak for others. The hardest thing for her is seeing a victim return to True North.

"There's that frustration that can happen for friends and family of, 'Why do you keep doing it? Why do you go back? I don't understand,'" Hickman said. "There's still a little bit of that for me sometimes, even though I've been in it and I do understand."

Briggs described the process a sexual assault victim goes through if they come to University Hospital for treatment.

Patients first meet with a triage nurse, where they are asked when the assault occurred, Briggs said. This is crucial because nurses have a time frame in which they can collect the best evidence — children younger than 14 need to report within 24 hours, and anybody older needs to report in 96.

Patients are then asked whether they want a forensic exam, also known as a rape kit. If patients request the exam, they wait for a True North advocate to arrive at the clinic to support the victim before a nurse conducts the exam, Briggs said.

The exam includes looking for potential areas of assailant DNA, questions about details of the assault and photographic evidence of injuries if the patient gives consent. Nurses also collect clothing that the patient wore during the assault, including underwear, as it can contain DNA evidence.

"At any point, we emphasize that the exam can start and stop at any time given what the patient wants to do," she said. "They have complete control over the exam, what we do during the exam, how much we do during the exam."

Once complete, these exams can be used as evidence in a court trial if the patient wishes to press charges.

Audience members also asked the panelists about their experiences working with sexual assault victims. Malebranche works with people living in True North's women's shelter and in the community. She said she notices a difference between the two demographics: Residents of the shelter tend to be more willing to talk about their experiences.

"A common theme is a fear of talking about the trauma," Malebranche said. "Really delving back into the trauma is usually pretty difficult for people because they're afraid that once they talk about it, they won't know how to put their pieces back together."

Supervising editor is Elise Schmelzer.

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