Stanford Hospital to be new site for treatment, evidence collection in rape cases

Starting in February, Stanford Hospital will become the second medical center in Santa Clara County to offer a place for victims of sexual assault to receive care and undergo evidence collection.

Victims of sexual assault will be able to obtain medical forensic exams, as well as medical care and emotional support, at Stanford Hospital beginning in February. Under a new contract with Santa Clara County, the hospital will serve as an additional site for these services, which have been available until now primarily at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.

The new Stanford Hospital has designated space in its Marc and Laura Andreessen Emergency Department, including rooms for private consultations, as well as a fully equipped treatment room and shower, that is removed from other patient care areas. The forensic medical exams will be conducted by the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center Sexual Assault Forensic Exam, or SAFE, team.  

“This partnership with Santa Clara County has allowed Stanford Health Care the opportunity to provide a private and supportive setting in our new emergency department, where the county’s sexual assault response team can deliver the highest level of compassionate care,” said David Entwistle, president and CEO of Stanford Health Care. “We’re proud to make this important service available to our surrounding community, which will help patients obtain this essential care more easily.”

Specially trained nurses

Under the agreement, the county will have specially trained nurses on call 24 hours a day to conduct exams at Stanford of adult and adolescent victims, male and female, and methodically collect evidence for legal purposes. Stanford physicians also will conduct medical screenings of victims and provide medical or surgical care for any assault-related injuries. In addition, social workers in the emergency department, as well as crisis counselors from the community, will be available to offer emotional support.

Lauren Schoenthaler, the university’s senior associate vice provost for institutional equity and access, said she hopes the new service will ease the process for victims from campus and the surrounding communities and encourage more people to report assaults.

“We know there are so many factors that prevent people from coming forward. Adding the need to travel to San Jose is just another factor that makes it more difficult to report. Anytime we can remove a barrier to reporting, we would like to do that,” Schoenthaler said. “We are incredibly grateful to the county for the opportunity to provide this additional service, not only for Stanford but for north county residents.”

She said the idea of opening a north county site had been under discussion for several years, with an initial proposal that Vaden Health Center, the university’s student health service, provide the space. But there were limitations at Vaden, including the lack of 24-hour coverage.

The prospect of Stanford Hospital serving as a site gained momentum about a year ago, when Santa Clara County Supervisor Joe Simitian began discussing options with university President Marc Tessier-Lavigne, PhD. Simitian, who represents northern Santa Clara County, said he had become concerned after learning that victims had to travel to San Jose for sexual assault exams, often at night in a police car.

“That meant someone who had already been traumatized by an assault had to deal with the further emotional challenge of being transported to an unfamiliar venue among unfamiliar surroundings,” Simitian said. “For me, this became a priority.”

Rise in reported assaults

He said a rise in reported assaults in the county made the issue all the more pressing. Between 2017 and 2018, the district attorney’s office saw a 20% jump in sexual assault cases under its review. The SAFE program at Valley Medical Center also reported a 20% rise in demand for its services in 2018, when it performed 422 exams. In 2019, it is on track to exceed the number of last year’s exams by as much as 35%, according to county figures.

In light of those numbers, the county took steps earlier this year to allocate an additional $1.6 million in funding to hire and train additional SAFE nurses and counselor-advocates in the community.

Kim Walker, RN, the nurse manager for the SAFE program at Valley Medical Center, said the team will include 25 forensic nurse examiners, who undergo up to nine months of rigorous training. They will be available to travel to Stanford within an hour.

Forensic nurse examiners can do a full medical forensic exam for law enforcement, including a blood draw for lab work; a medical forensic history; and collection of evidence, including photos, swabs and clothing, which will be carefully processed and bagged. Patients will be screened for HIV and sexually transmitted diseases and provided with prophylactic treatment. They will also be offered emergency contraception. Exams can be performed and evidence collected within 10 days of an assault for patients 12 years and older, Walker said.

Patients who are unsure whether they want to press charges still have a right under the Violence Against Women Act to a full, free medical forensic exam, Walker said. The exam gives them the opportunity to preserve evidence but take time to process their experience and make a decision. Only when they decide to pursue legal action will forensic evidence be released to law enforcement, she said.

Victims who have already decided they don’t want to pursue legal process can still be seen for a medical check-up and any necessary treatment. In these cases, no evidence is collected.

In all instances, steps are taken to protect patient privacy, she said.

“We make sure that the patient’s information is confidential and is protected at a higher level than even the medical record,” Walker said. “The only way the information is provided is by subpoena.”

Moreover, nothing will be done without the patient’s express consent. “It’s all about the patient — their emotional and medical needs, as well as evidence collection,” said Patrice Callagy, RN, executive director of emergency services at Stanford Health Care. She said Stanford will not charge patients for the medical forensic exams.

Patients younger than 12 who may be victims of sexual assault will be examined and treated under a separate protocol by pediatric specialists in Stanford’s pediatric emergency department.

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