Each year, Safe Harbor awards the Beacon of Hope to an individual or group who does outstanding work to break the cycle of domestic violence in the Richmond community.

This year we are recognizing the forensic nursing teams at both VCU Medical Center and Bon Secours Richmond Health System, who work with survivors on the front lines of domestic and sexual violence by using their medical expertise to recover physical evidence of abuse and assault. These specialized professionals collaborate with law enforcement and social service agencies across Central Virginia, and their work enables criminal prosecution in cases of domestic violence, sexual assault or child sexual abuse.

Waiting in an emergency room can be a frightening experience for anyone, and a person who has suffered physical or sexual assault often has no idea what to expect when they arrive at the hospital. If a survivor agrees to complete a Physical Examination Recovery Kit (PERK), a forensic nurse will guide them through the procedures to collect physical evidence that can later be cited in a criminal trial. This evidence is critical if a survivor decides to take legal action against their perpetrator, because cases of sexual assault and abuse are notoriously difficult to prosecute without physical proof.

Forensic_Nurse_Examiners-2009_logo2_colorIn 2014 alone, Bon Secours nurse examiners conducted about 150 PERK exams and treated nearly 1,900 survivors of child abuse, elder abuse, sexual assault and domestic violence. Bonnie Price, director of the Bon Secours Richmond Health System’s forensic nursing program based at St. Mary’s Hospital, has 22 years of experience in this emotionally challenging field.

“I think it’s wonderful that the forensic nurses in Central Virginia are being recognized,” Price said. “They work really long hard hours doing a difficult job, and all of the nurses in the area do great work.”

Over the years, Price and her team at Bon Secours have adapted their policies to make the hospital experience less traumatic for survivors. In the past, survivors who presented to the emergency room were treated in order of the severity of their injuries.

“Now, the ER staff is trained to show compassionate care for these patients and we try to get them in a private area as quickly as we can,” Price said. “The whole process, to me, is more patient-centered than it has been in the past, which is a good thing.”

vcu-logo (1)Caitlin Shiflett, the Intimate Partner Violence/Sexual Assault Advocate for VCU Medical Center, said the hospital’s forensic nursing team was very excited to be recognized for their work with survivors of sexual and domestic violence.

“Our staff is just so passionate and dedicated to this population,” Shiflett said. “As much as they are medical professionals, I feel that they try to advocate as much as they can for their patients.”

Whether they’re creating new hospital protocols or applying for grants to increase services, the VCU Medical Center’s forensic nursing team continues to grow and provide better support to survivors.

“Our nurses are so caring and diverse,” Shiflett added. “We have lots of years of experience here and it shows. I’m proud of them and love working with them.”

Forensic nurses work in an environment where bedside manner truly matters. While the nurse examiner’s primary responsibility is to document evidence, he or she can play a major role in whether a survivor feels comfortable seeking support in the aftermath of their traumatic experience. Not all patients agree to undergo hours of invasive examination, and not all of them are willing to speak with police. But if a survivor has a positive experience with the forensic nurses during the exam, they may be more likely to seek follow-up treatment, or feel more comfortable speaking to law enforcement.

Carolyn Foster, a client services advocate with Safe Harbor, provides emotional support to the forensic nurses’ patients as an on-call advocate with the Regional Hospital Accompaniment Response Team (RHART). Despite the slow and meticulous process of securing evidence for a PERK, Foster has watched nurse examiners reassure patients with a calming demeanor and allow them time to share the details of their story.

“While working beside these men and women, I notice they are careful to empower the patient and let them make decisions about their body,” Foster said. “The additional training they have doesn’t teach them to be kind and caring – they bring that to the job on their own.”

As an advocate, Foster said she enjoys working with the forensic nurses because they treat survivors with dignity and respect.

“Each nurse is a special kind of person, and we are so fortunate to work beside them,” Foster said. “Thank you is not enough for what they do.”

The Beacon of Hope award will be presented at this year’s Festival of Hope, to be held on November 14th. More information about the event will be available soon.