Seekhaven Director of Client Services Tess Barger (left) and Moab Regional Hospital SANE Program Coordinator Kerri Fife (right) are working together to streamline community response to sexual assault. [Photo credit Rachel Fixsen / Moab Sun News]

In a more perfect world, there would never be a need. But until that world is achieved, leaders within Moab Regional Hospital, Seekhaven Crisis and Resource Center, and the Moab Police Department’s Victims Assistance Unit are working together to try to provide smoother, more efficient services to victims of sexual assault.

Kerri Fife is the coordinator for the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program at Moab Regional Hospital, Tess Barger is the director for client services at Seekhaven, and Karen DeKruger is the victim’s advocate at the Moab Police Department. The three have been meeting to familiarize themselves with each entity’s missions, goals, and protocols, and to devise ways to work together more effectively.

Meetings between these groups ensure that each organization is aware of what resources are available to victims and how to find those resources.

Since incidents of sexual assault and victims are all different, it’s important for agencies to be prepared to respond to a variety of scenarios. Not all victims will want to pursue criminal charges; others may choose not to undergo a forensic exam. Some may report their assault to the police and seek no other services; others may look for counseling but decline to engage in the criminal legal system. Assault is sometimes reported immediately after the incident; other times it may be decades before a victim of assault confronts the episode.

“Each of our groups is reflecting inward and really evaluating our own internal policies and procedures to ensure that they are as trauma-informed and observing best practice as much as possible,” Barger said. “And then looking at not only internal policies but collaborative protocols: when a sexual assault victim enters the system, how can we as quickly and effectively as possible coordinate a support team for them?”

Barger and Fife explained that the process of dealing with an incident of sexual assault can be confusing and painful. A forensic examination may consist of a transcript of a verbal account of the incident, documentation of injuries and a physical exam for possible DNA identification. Patients can opt out of any or all parts of the forensic exam and still receive a full medical exam to care for their health and safety.

“It can be very invasive,” Fife acknowledged of the forensic procedure. “And so it’s really important to let a victim know that they really do have the right to pick and choose.”

Full participation in the forensic exam provides the best chance of successful prosecution of the offender, but the legal procedure can be drawn-out. Sexual assault evidence kits must be sent to the state crime lab in Salt Lake City for analysis. Barger said the average wait time for a kit to be analyzed is six months.

“A lot of people don’t feel like they can wait that long, and they drop out of the [legal] process,” Barger said. “It is frustrating because law enforcement want to keep victims engaged in the system and bring people to justice, but there are a lot of factors that are out of the hands of our local law enforcement that influence these cases moving forward.”

While many factors are beyond the control of local service providers, they are dedicated to doing their best in the services that are within their purview.

“We want to try to make the process less traumatizing for the victim,” Fife explained. “Research is showing that a lot of times, just going through the process of getting an exam or working with law enforcement and having to collaborate, as a victim, with these different agencies can often be pretty traumatizing and hard… we’re trying to streamline it and just provide better services across the whole board.”

Moab Regional Hospital’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program was expanded last year. Nurses trained as SANEs conduct forensic sexual assault exams, during which evidence is collected that can be used to pursue a criminal charge against a perpetrator of the assault. For over a decade, Moab relied on a single trained SANE, Tina Kelch, to be “on-call” at all times to perform this service when needed.

Under the expanded SANE program, Fife and two other nurses at Moab Regional have been trained to perform sexual assault forensic exams. The hospital is supporting on-going education for these nurses and Fife is working on formalizing protocols to be easily followed and taught to future SANEs.

“We were really lucky that we had Tina [Kelch] for like 12 years,” Fife said. “She’s been such a solid, reliable person to be doing those exams, but I think the reality is that the community is growing and changing…to formally talk about and develop some protocols together will hopefully make it easier as people transition to other areas in their career and new people that are interested in this area come in.”

Collaborating with other organizations like Seekhaven and the Victim’s Assistance Unit is another aspect of Fife’s leadership role in the SANE program.

Barger has worked at Seekhaven since 2016 and has recently taken on the role of director of client services. She has been meeting with Fife to discuss how the two organizations can coordinate to provide better services to victims of sexual assault.

“Seekhaven has made a big push in the last year to really expand our sexual-assault-specific programs,” said Barger.

She noted that within organizations that serve victims of both domestic and sexual violence, research shows that resources tend to unintentionally favor victims of domestic violence. Barger said that was true at Seekhaven as well.

“We’re trying to come back to center,” she said. Administrators at the center applied for grants to support resources for sexual assault victims and recently hired two new sexual assault advocates, who help victims locate resources, communicate with law enforcement and can accompany them through forensic exams. Seekhaven also offers prevention and education programs, such as classes for youth and families on healthy relationships and consultations on workplace sexual harassment policies.

“It was very good timing,” Barger said of the initiation of the collaborative effort between Seekhaven and the hospital. “I was really evaluating Seekhaven’s internal policies and procedures and how effective they were and weren’t when Kerri entered into her position.”

Karen DeKruger is the victim advocate for the Moab Police Department. She serves victims of any type of crime, including sexual assault. From Jul. 1 to Dec. 15 of 2019, DeKruger said the Moab Victim’s Assistance Unit served 109 victims of crime, including three sexual assault cases.

“Oftentimes, I am [victims’] first contact with the prosecution system for the county and the city,” DeKruger said.

She serves all of Grand County, not just Moab, and her job includes helping victims fill out forms for the police department, formulate official statements and navigate court proceedings. The Victim’s Assistance Unit can also help people secure funding for emergency lodging, fuel, transportation, food and clothing, and can refer them to counseling and further medical assistance.

DeKruger said the collaboration between first responders “will be a benefit to any victim of sexual assault and the community as a whole.”

Barger noted that Seekhaven’s relationship with the Victim’s Assistance Unit already helps her organization advance its mission.

“At Seekhaven, we also offer legal services both on the civil and criminal sides,” Barger said, but added that DeKruger’s expertise has been valuable in this area. “She’s able to provide a lot of information to us, and we’re able to assist in coordinating getting individuals in with law enforcement and prosecution to continue pursuing cases against their offenders. That’s been a very powerful, effective relationship.”

To reach a victim advocate at the Moab Police Department, call 435-259-8938. Seekhaven can be reached 24/7 at 435-259-2229. Moab Regional Hospital can be reached at 435-719-3500.

Local orgs collaborate on protocols for sexual assault response

“We want to try to make the process less traumatizing for the victim.”

– Kerri Fife