Before Sherri Thornton examines a patient who has been sexually assaulted, she spends at least 45 minutes listening as the patient describes what happened. It’s how the long-time nurse builds trust and gauges how to conduct the rest of the forensic exam, which sometimes can take up to 12 hours. Patients’ dispositions vary depending on their personal reactions to stress. Some are tearful. Others are angry, giddy or difficult — all normal. It’s also normal for a patient to have no physical injury despite experiencing immense trauma.
In the exam, Thornton lays a sheet on the floor, with another paper sheet on top to collect evidence such as clothing fibers or hairs. Depending on whether the patient has changed clothes since the assault, Thornton may collect and bag individual clothing items. She may take cervical, skin, mouth or anal swabs. She may scrape out material from under the patient’s fingernails, collect a DNA sample from the patient, document bruises and measure swelling of the neck if someone attempted to strangle the patient. She will stop at any point if the patient wants her to.
In addition to examining the patient’s entire body for injury, she may provide medications for sexually transmitted diseases or to prevent pregnancy.
Thornton, who is the coordinator for MaineGeneral Medical Center’s regional forensic examiner program in Kennebec and Somerset counties, stores all the samples and documentation in what’s known as a rape kit, which is then sealed and sent to police. If patients are open to a police investigation, the results of the sexual assault forensic exam — processed by the Maine State Police Crime Laboratory — could aid in the prosecution of an assailant, identify offenders across multiple cases or clear someone who was wrongly suspected.
Most hospitals in Maine have at least one sexual assault forensic examiner like Thornton, but currently five of the state’s 34 hospitals with emergency departments do not. Hospitals that don’t staff these positions risk harming the progress of a criminal investigation, and not providing optimum physical and mental health care, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which has studied the issue. The collection of DNA evidence has been shown to increase the likelihood of prosecution.
Currently Calais Regional Hospital, Northern Light AR Gould Hospital in Presque Isle, Northern Light Blue Hill Hospital, Northern Light Maine Coast Hospital in Ellsworth and Penobscot Valley Hospital in Lincoln have no staff who have completed their sexual assault forensic examiner certification, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services and the University of New England, which work together to train providers, who are most often nurses. Penobscot Valley’s CEO said some staff intend to complete the required training in the spring.
Erin Rhoda is editor of Maine Focus, a journalism and community engagement initiative by the Bangor Daily News.
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