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Agencies, new programs respond to July jump in area reports

Published Aug. 21, 2005, in the Lake Charles American Press

A young woman walks to her car in a dark parking lot. She sees no one around. A stranger grabs her from behind.

This is the classic scenario for rape. But according to Nina Delome and Kelli Barnes of Rape Crisis Outreach in Lake Charles, it is also a stereotype.

Delome and Barnes said the notion that women are always raped by strange men in dark, secluded places is inaccurate. In fact, Barnes said, there were recently two local cases of rape that happened in busy parking lots in broad daylight.

Delome, the program's director, said there were 21 cases of rape reported in Calcasieu Parish in July. The average number of reported cases per month is about eight.

The local branch of Rape Crisis Outreach serves Calcasieu, Allen, Beauregard, Cameron and Jeff Davis parishes. Barnes, who is an educator and trainer for the program, said she doubts there have been a monthly total of 21 cases of rape reported in the five-parish area during the nine years she has worked there.

Delome said the 21 cases all involved hospital examinations. Anonymous phone calls received by the center and late-reporting victims were not included in the total.

Six of the cases were children, nine were between the ages of 18 and 24, and six were between 25 and 40.

Of the 21 cases, three were reported as incest, two as rape by a stranger, 11 as rape by an acquaintance or intimate partner, two as rape by both a stranger and an acquaintance and three as rape in jail.

Eighteen of the people who reported rape were women; three were men.

A team response

When rape occurs, victims may be in shock and not know where to turn.

In participation with a national program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Southwest Louisiana has an active Sexual Assault Response Team. This means that all area agencies who respond to sexual assaults coordinate their actions to better serve the victims. They include counseling services, police agencies, hospitals and prosecutors.

One component of the SART is the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program. The Southwest Louisiana program is coordinated by registered nurse Tammy Bailey at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital.

Bailey said the locale SANE-SART program was born in 2001 when representatives of Rape Crisis Outreach, local police agencies, Lake Charles Memorial Hospital, and the Calcasieu District Attorney's Office met to put together a plan. They researched other programs in the nation, adopted some of their policies and drafted some of their own.

Bailey said one of the most important benefits of the program is that victims don't have to keep retelling their stories like they used to. A Rape Crisis Outreach counselor, a SANE nurse and a law enforcement official can meet at the hospital and document the victim's story at the same time.

Because it is important for rape victims to come to the hospital before bathing, eating, drinking, douching or changing clothes so that valuable evidence is not destroyed, the Rape Crisis Outreach counselor supplies a change of clothes and hygiene products.

There is now a private room for sexual assault victims at Lake Charles Memorial Hospital. Bailey said the room gives victims a quieter, more confidential waiting area, so they no longer have to wait in the busy emergency room.

“They were waiting in the general public with Joe Smith who had a leg injury,” she said. “As you know, emergency departments are going to take the most critically injured first. Well, rape victims were not considered emergency patients because most of them don't have visible injuries. Sometimes they would wait up to six hours before being seen. Now we have a place they can go right away.”

There are nurses specially trained to give rape examinations. These nurses volunteer to stay on call and are prepared to report to the hospital quickly if a rape occurs.

The hospital also has a special piece of equipment called a colposcope, which is a camera used in rape examinations to find microscopic tears in genital tissue.

“It can show that the patient has injuries consistent with blunt-force trauma; we can't say rape, because that's the ultimate answer for the jury to say,” she said.

According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, communities with SANE programs have a higher percentage of guilty pleas from sexual assault defendants than those that do not.

Treating the children

The subject of child sexual abuse can be baffling. Why do perpetrators perform sexual acts on children too young to have sexual tendencies?

Delome said rape is not about sex. It is about control.

“If you have somebody who wants to exert power over somebody, they're looking for somebody they're going to have success doing that with,” Delome said. “Who is more helpless and defenseless than a child?”

Delome said that Rape Crisis Outreach focuses much of its counseling on the parents of child victims because they are the ones who must help their children deal with what happened day in and day out.

“Their parents are their primary support group, so we try to instruct them on how to help their child. We help them, too, because a lot of times the parents are just as traumatized as the child,” Delome said.

Emily Williams, coordinator and forensic interviewer at the Children's Advocacy Center in Lake Charles, said that the perpetrator in 90 percent of child sexual abuse cases is a person the child knows.

The Children's Advocacy Center, which serves the five area parishes, handles interviews of child and adult mentally handicapped victims for several local police agencies, including the Calcasieu Parish Sheriff's Office. Williams said the center offers a friendlier place to interview a child than a hospital or police station, reducing trauma.

Last year the center interviewed 337 victims for sexual abuse, Williams said.

The future of treatment

Elizabeth Zaunbrecher, one of the Sheriff's Office's six full-time sex-crimes detectives, said there's no way to accurately explain the increase of cases in July. But after working with sex crimes victims for seven years, Zaunbrecher said she hopes it is a sign that more victims are coming forward. Statistically, only one in 10 rape cases is reported.

“Through education we've now learned that it's not the victim's fault, and people report more because that stigma has been lifted,” Zaunbrecher said.

According to a listing at sane-sart.com, Lake Charles is only one of four cities in Louisiana with SANE-SART programs. The others are New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Independence.

After observing the program's success in Lake Charles, American Legion Hospital in Jennings will soon have one, too.

Eleanor East, emergency room supervisor, said the hospital ordered a colposcope Friday morning and is now planning training sessions for SANE nurses.

East, who became familiar with the program from working in Texas, said she's been wanting to become a SANE nurse for 10 years.