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Trained nurses respond when kids are sexually assaulted

The Pediatric/Adolescent Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners team can respond 24 hours a day to kids who show up at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center or Providence Medford Medical Center emergency departments. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune
Team helps children start on road to healing

If a child who’s been sexually assaulted shows up at a local emergency room, a team of specially trained nurses is ready to respond.

Their goal is to not only do a thorough exam and collect evidence, but to start the child on the path to healing — both physically and mentally.

Dr. Natalya Miller, a pediatrician and the medical director of the Pediatric/Adolescent Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners team, said sexual abuse and sexual assault against kids is a problem in every community, including the Rogue Valley.

“People know this happens, but they don’t want to think about it. It does happen, and it’s very real,” she said. “But there’s a team of highly trained, specialized nurses who are trained to do an evaluation and respond. It’s incredible that we have it — and so good for vulnerable children.”

More than three years ago, people who were concerned about the issue teamed up to organize a team that can respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week to help kids.

The Children’s Advocacy Center in Medford was able to help kids during regular office hours on weekdays, but didn’t have the staffing for a round-the-clock response. The center helps kids who’ve been sexually or physically abused or neglected.

The Asante Foundation stepped up to fund the Pediatric/Adolescent Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners team, which works in partnership with hospital emergency departments, law enforcement and the Children’s Advocacy Center.

The team helps children up to age 14 if they go to the emergency department of Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center or Providence Medford Medical Center. Emergency department doctors do an initial medical screening, then activate a nurse from the team if that’s warranted.

“When children come to the hospital, it might be the worst day of their life,” Miller said.

But the compassionate, gentle nurses are trained to not add to the trauma of the sexual assault, said Tammi Pitzen, executive director of the Children’s Advocacy Center.

“The trauma is the sexual assault. Ignoring the trauma won’t make it go away,” she said.

Pitzen said kids need medical care for any injuries they suffered. They also need reassurance that they’ll be OK, plus information about follow-up services like counseling.

“A lot of times when kids are sexually assaulted, there’s this feeling that your body is not right,” she said. “We don’t know what offenders tell kids. About 90% of abuse is done by someone they know. We never underestimate the things a perpetrator might have said.They might say, ‘Your body’s broken.’”

The nurses can help address the feelings kids are experiencing, Pitzen said.

“A nurse on the team can say, ‘You’re healthy. Your body is exactly what it’s supposed to be.’ At least physically, they’re healing. It hasn’t changed their body,” Pitzen said.

She said when kids get the medical care and reassurance they need, they can put their energy toward healing emotionally. Many kids suffer from depression, anxiety and shame after being sexually assaulted.

In some cases, a child may have contracted a sexually transmitted infection from an assailant. Getting medical care is crucial.

“The prevalence of sexually transmitted infections in children is low, but it’s not zero,” said Miller. “The result of a comprehensive evaluation is being able to tell a child, ‘You are OK. You don’t have an infection, or if you do, we can treat it so you can move on.’”

For a decade, registered nurse Cherrith Young has been a part of the better-known Jackson County Sexual Assault Response Team. That team has been helping survivors for years, but wasn’t designed specifically for children.

Young was glad to join the Pediatric/Adolescent Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners team tailor-made for kids.

“I have a special place in my heart for kids. I have three girls,” she said. “In the ER, we see lots of kids who are traumatized. There was definitely a need. Being able to provide support after hours and on weekends is critical.”

Young serves on the pediatric examiners team with five other nurses. She said the nurses know how to interact with kids at their level and build rapport.

“We’re not there to hurt or harm them. We’re there to make sure they’re safe and their body is safe. We’re there to provide support and do a basic head-to-toe evaluation,” Young said. “It definitely takes an art to speak with little ones. With the little ones, maybe you could sing a song with them. You could have a 14-year-old or a 3-year-old.”

Young said she’s grateful for Asante’s support that makes the team for kids possible. Asante not only provides funding, it lets the team use hospital resources like a simulation lab for training, she said.

Asante President and CEO Scott Kelly said Asante’s partnership with the Children’s Advocacy Center to fund the program and provide the nurses who perform the exams helps children access the immediate and specialized care they need at their most vulnerable time.

“I’m incredibly grateful for our nurses who perform this work; it’s not easy. That’s why supporting their training is vital. Their expertise has the power to change a child’s life for the better,” Kelly said.

The nurses are trained to perform a forensic evaluation and collect evidence such as DNA.

If a perpetrator is arrested and charged, having properly collected forensic evidence means the person will be more likely to plead guilty, rather than fighting the charges and putting a child through a trial, Pitzen said.

“There have been some cases where it’s been really instrumental in getting justice served as a result of the evidence collected,” she said.

To help kids with long-term emotional healing, nurses on the team can connect kids to counseling and other services offered by organizations such as the Children’s Advocacy Center. The center can also do forensic interviews with kids and help them with the process if criminal charges are pursued against an assailant.

“The pediatric examination is where the healing starts,” Miller said. “We want to make sure kids get their medical issues handled and get the resources they need to start on the path of healing.”

No one knows exactly how many kids are victims of sexual assault because many never tell anyone. But an estimated 1-in-10 kids is sexually abused before they turn 18, Pitzen said.

The Pediatric/Adolescent Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners team stands ready to help.

“It’s not well known, but it’s important to know we provide these services. If something unfortunately happens, we’re here for kids,” Young said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.