Nurses, police distressed by sexual assault evidence-gathering delays

DNA evidence is just one piece of a sexual assault investigation, but delays in collecting it only hurt, never help.

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DNA evidence is just one piece of a sexual assault investigation, but delays in collecting it only hurt, never help.

“Time is not the friend of an investigation. So the more efficient and compassionate we can be with our service model to a survivor that’s affected by sexual assault and the trauma associated with it, the better off it is for everybody,” said Sgt. Gary Mathez, one of the officers in charge of the Winnipeg Police Service’s sex crimes unit.

The unit works closely with Manitoba’s sexual assault nurse examiner program, and it’s often police officers who regularly accompany victims to the Health Sciences Centre to have forensic exams. Staff shortages in the program have caused long wait times and resulted in patients having to choose between waiting several hours in an ER or going home, with instructions not to wash themselves, and come back later. Some never return.

At about 12:30 a.m. Monday, a teenage patient arrived for a forensic sexual-assault exam but had to return eight hours later because there was no nurse on shift at the time.

It was not the first time a sexual assault victim was turned away or forced to wait for hours.

Mathez said he couldn’t speak about that incident or how it affected the criminal investigation.

“With respect to the shortages at the hospital and how specific it relates to a police investigation, time is always relevant to an investigation, but the forensic piece — although very relevant to us, it’s more about serving the needs of the survivor.”

SANE nurse Katie Stark, who has been conducting forensic exams for 11 years, said incidents such as the one Monday are upsetting for nurses, who know delays affect the well-being of patients, as well as police investigations.

“It’s absolutely devastating. We went from a program where we almost had no vacant shifts and patients were always being seen to a program where there’s consistently, weekly, vacant shifts,” she said, adding there were 21 eight-hour shifts left vacant in February alone.

If the patient chooses to wait until a nurse is available, it often means sitting in a “chaotic” waiting room, Stark said. They’re usually exhausted, hungry and impatient.

“It’s not trauma-informed care to say ‘come back later’ and it’s also not evidence-based. If somebody has evidence to collect, we should collect it immediately,” Stark said.

The exams generally take about three hours and include medical treatment, documentation, photographs and the collection of DNA evidence.

Police depend “greatly” on the sexual-assault nurse examiner program and have good communication with its staff, Mathez said. WPS, along with the SANE program, Manitoba Justice victims services and advocacy organizations such as Klinic, meet quarterly as part of a Sexual Assault Response Team, where they’ve been kept up-to-date with how the program is moving forward, Mathez said.

“There has been very positive communication, so I see that as more good than bad moving forward.”

A sexual-assault charge can go forward without DNA evidence. Police consider all kinds of evidence, including the survivor’s account, eyewitness testimony and video. Mathez said police want to have a trauma-informed response to sexual assault and continue to collaborate with other agencies with the goal of putting the survivor first.

“We’re ultimately collectors of information here, and we collect every single piece,” he said. “And then once we have that, we move on the investigation. And not only on what the police want, but more importantly what the survivor wants. The survivor is in control of this process at all times.”

The government has pledged to expand the program and an Alberta-based manager has been hired to oversee that work.

Katie May

Katie May

Katie May is a general-assignment reporter for the Free Press.

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