Every time I read a news story about a horrific sexual crime, I calm myself with the mantra that people are comforting the victim and hunting down the assailant. As a mother, my mental distress is especially acute over crimes against children. I read a story last week about a 3-year-old girl who was violently raped by a stranger and left for dead, bloodied and torn. I thought I would vomit.
In the past, I would tell myself that a team of experts was surrounding the victim with support simply in order to move on with the rest of my day. The truth was, I didn’t know.
What a relief it was when I first learned about Santa Barbara County’s Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), a program with many partners including the Public Health Department. These are the heroes I had always hoped existed, but never knew of until I came to work for public health.
SART provides critical services to more than 200 sexual assault victims each year in our county. The victims are as young as infants and as old as senior citizens. When SART gets a call that a sexual assault may have taken place, they spring into action and immediately activate the SART response. These actions are time-sensitive, so the SART team is often interviewing victims, performing medical exams, and collecting laboratory evidence in the middle of the night.
Our SART medical examiners have extensive training in sexual assault, including proper documentation of torn tissues, specimen collection, and sensitivity to the survivor’s trauma. They collect body fluids, document injuries, and gather forensic evidence. The SART team examiner counsels the survivor on HIV testing and authorizes medications to prevent the transmission of HIV, if there is reason to believe the assailant may have been HIV-positive.
From a legal standpoint, the SART medical examination provides a critical piece of forensic evidence. The exam was designed specifically to meet the high legal standards of the criminal justice system so that evidence collected is admissible in court. In many cases, the SART exam has supported convictions of sexual perpetrators or established the innocence of the incorrectly accused. It is truly the intersection of law and medicine.
A crucial component of identifying the sexual perpetrator is the criminal justice database known as “Combined DNA Index System” (CODIS). Swabs from the SART medical exam are sent to the Department of Justice Crime Laboratory, where a DNA profile of the suspected perpetrator is compared to the state database of convicted offender and arrestee DNA profiles. When there is a match, law enforcement conducts further investigation. The remarkable scientific advancements in DNA analysis, coupled with the CODIS database, have lead to numerous successful prosecutions.
The Department of Justice Crime Lab in Oakland recently conducted a study which found that a large number of assailants still have their victims’ DNA on them long after the crime, and a match could be made based on the swabs from the victim’s medical exam. In the study, specimens were taken from sexual assault suspects while they were in jail, sometimes even after they had bathed. More than 30% of suspects were found to have their victims DNA still present on them, even days after the sexual assault. Matching victim and perpetrator specimens begins with the SART exam.
Started in 1987, the SART program now has 20 partners throughout our county including hospitals, law enforcement agencies, rape crisis centers, UCSB, child welfare services, the District Attorney’s Office, the Department of Justice Crime Laboratory, and the Public Health Department. Each of these partners brings a specialized area of expertise to combating sexual assault.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. During this month, we reflect on the fact that every hour in our country, 28 women survive rape or sexual assault. One in four college women report surviving rape or attempted rape. To me, the saddest of all the statistics is that 42% of rape survivors told no one about the assault.
I am thankful to our Public Health Department’s SART experts, who put a name and a face on that “someone, somewhere” in my mind who is taking care of the victim. Join with me this month in recognizing the many agencies in our community who combat sexual violence and who provide services to victims and their families.
Charity Thoman, M.D., M.H.A., is a deputy health officer in Santa Barbara County's Public Health Department.