January 23, 2020

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HSC sex assault treatment program expands to domestic violence care

<p>Ashley Smith, coordinator of the sexual assault support and care program in an examining room at the sexual assault clinic at HSC.</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Ashley Smith, coordinator of the sexual assault support and care program in an examining room at the sexual assault clinic at HSC.

Manitoba’s largest sexual assault treatment program has expanded care for victims of domestic violence.

Seeing a need for trauma-informed treatment that wasn’t solely for people who have been sexually assaulted, the forensic nurses at Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre are now using their training to care for people who’ve been physically abused by their partners.

Since Nov. 1, the team of about 14 sexual assault nurse examiners has also been seeing patients who’ve been strangled or otherwise subjected to violence, said Ashley Smith, co-ordinator of the program.

"That expansion was done because, basically, we saw a need for it. We know that Manitoba has a high rate of intimate partner violence and domestic violence, and so we knew that because forensic nurses have the expertise to care for victims of violence and give trauma-informed care, we have that specialized training," Smith said.

"This was another area that forensic nurses are providing care to in other places across the country, as well as in the United States and North America, so we knew it was an area that we could expand to and provide more service."

"We know that Manitoba has a high rate of intimate partner violence and domestic violence, and so we knew that because forensic nurses have the expertise to care for victims of violence and give trauma-informed care, we have that specialized training." -Ashley Smith

Since the program’s expansion in November, the team provided 25 intimate-partner violence consultations with patients to discuss their options, a spokeswoman for HSC said.

Those who’ve been sexually assaulted by intimate partners have always been able to receive treatment and forensic examinations under HSC’s program, although they don’t have a choice about whether to proceed with criminal charges. Policies meant to combat domestic violence mandate a police investigation when someone alleges they’ve been sexually assaulted by a current or former partner.

Other sexual assault victims have more time to decide whether they want to come forward to police. For more than a decade, the team at HSC has offered victims the option of a "forensic hold" on evidence collected during their sexual assault examination. DNA evidence and other information about the assault is kept by police indefinitely until victims decide they want a criminal investigation to be conducted.

Individual responses to trauma and its effects on the body and brain mean victims can’t always decide right away whether to file a police report, Smith said.

"Rather than forcing people to make a decision sometimes hours after the assault, when they might still feel the shock and might be processing what happened, we can give them more time to be able to make an informed decision. And so by doing the forensic hold, we can document the assault, we can take some types of forensic evidence in these cases, and that evidence and information isn’t lost, and it gives those individuals another tool to be able to make that decision later on," even years later, she said.

There were about 294 sexual assault forensic exams conducted in Winnipeg last year, and 44 of those patients opted for forensic holds as of Dec. 20, 2019, according to HSC.

“We really want to communicate to individuals that even if they’ve gone home and they’ve showered or they’ve washed clothing or it’s been a few days, to still come in because there’s still a lot we can do for them — forensically but also medically, because we also care about that person’s physical and psychological health.” -Ashley Smith

The forensic exams can be done up to 10 days after a sexual assault. They’re conducted in a private, unmarked area of the hospital. The sooner patients come in, the better, because DNA evidence degrades over time, Smith said.

"But technology advances have been really expansive over the last number of years in terms of DNA technology, so that’s why we’ve expanded our time frames. Ideally for forensic evidence collection, we would like to see people within five days. We still will collect beyond that," Smith said.

"We really want to communicate to individuals that even if they’ve gone home and they’ve showered or they’ve washed clothing or it’s been a few days, to still come in because there’s still a lot we can do for them — forensically but also medically, because we also care about that person’s physical and psychological health."

Manitoba had the second-highest rates of intimate-partner violence among Canadian provinces in 2018, behind only Saskatchewan, a Statistics Canada study released in mid-December states.

Manitoba had 592 domestic violence victims per 100,000 people, with women in rural areas more likely to suffer violence. The data came from police statistics on reported crimes in 2018.

katie.may@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @thatkatiemay

Katie May

Katie May
Justice reporter

Katie May reports on courts, crime and justice for the Free Press.

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