A groundbreaking program that offered a rare, gentle landing for child survivors of sexual assault has lost its funding.
During the most recent year — only its second — the sexual-assault nurse examiners program (known by its acronym, SANE) at Connecticut Children's Medical Center treated 85 uniquely vulnerable patients and earned the respect of area advocates, including police officers and attorneys. SANE nurses remain on staff, says Wendy E. Warring, hospital senior vice president and chief operating officer. And with luck, children who've been sexually assaulted will come to the hospital when those nurses are there.
A stricken economy is no respecter of victims, but these kids sure could use a break.
Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services says one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted before age 18. In the past, when an assault was newly reported, the child was taken to an emergency room, where she could wait hours before being seen by a doctor or nurse. She might have to repeat her awful story several times, which, say counselors, can be hurtful.
At CCMC, SANE staffers quietly collected fingernail scrapings and swabbed mouths in as unobtrusive an environment as possible. They often used toys to encourage conversation, and they were trained to testify in court.
State prosecutor Anne Mahoney recently argued the sad case of a 5-year-old who accused her mother's boyfriend of sexual abuse. The girl was brought to CCMC's SANE program. Evidence was collected that — when compared to DNA evidence from the accused — resulted in a guilty plea. "That made the difference between somebody pleading guilty and some intense form of trial for that child," said Mahoney. "She never had to come into the court."
SANE also serves as a guard against false accusations, said Mahoney. "You also want somebody that qualified if you're being falsely or wrongly accused," she said.
The hospital cut the program after much soul-searching, said Martin J. Gavin, hospital president and CEO.
"We went back through and looked at a bunch of things," he said. "We went through the process very deliberately with a lot of angst." Besides eliminating SANE, the hospital froze raises and cut visitor assistance services, he said. The economy is failing; donations are down; and the hospital struggles with reimbursement for its needy patients. Gavin said no one wants to cut programs, because "we want to provide health care for these kids."
Meanwhile, he said, the hospital just saw its 2 millionth patient.
"You know what it reminds me of?" said Penni Micca, a domestic violence law enforcement advocate. "Every time schools have a problem with the budget, they cut all-day kindergarten, even though studies say all-day kindergartens have a huge impact. I understand hospitals are a business, but the benefit of a SANE program far outweighs the cost."
Ann Glaser, chair of the Connecticut Children's Alliance, called the SANE program "wonderful," and uniquely qualified to deal with some of the society's most vulnerable people.
"Just because someone is trained to do rape kits doesn't mean they're trained to deal with a child who's been sexually abused," Glaser said. "You need to have people who know what they're doing, who understand children's language and fears."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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