‘The voice of the victim is getting stronger’

The way sexual assaults are handled in Nelson has improved a lot in the past few years, support workers say.

Sarah Bolton

Sarah Bolton

The way sexual assaults are handled in Nelson has improved a lot in the past few years, support workers say.

One improvement is at Kootenay Lake Hospital where five years ago, Rosanne Fordeczka became the first nurse at the hospital to take the sexual assault nurse examiner program at BC Women’s Hospital.

“I worked on a sexual assault case where there was a doctor, me, and a police officer during the examination,” Fordeczka recalls. “I thought, for a person who has been violated to have three people in a room when you are being examined is more upsetting. There is no privacy, no choice, almost like another violation really, and the type of examination we did was so antiquated for what the courts needed. It was much more invasive than it needed to be.

“The other choice that the girl had was to go to Trail which is an hour away. I think it was winter, and she might have to wait for hours for the doctor. So I felt there should be some changes with what our community could offer.”

Now she and another nurse, who has taken the same course, volunteer to be on call around the clock as sexual assault nurse examiners. (If they are called in, the volunteer work ends, and they are paid.)

“We learned how to do a sexual assault examination,” Fordeczka says. “We learned what the courts need. We get a detailed narration, and we get forensic specimens. So, saliva if they have been bitten, their clothes in case there is sperm, particularly their underwear. We take their clothes if necessary and supply other clothes to them.

“We take specimens from fingernail clippings if they have scratched the person or if they were scratched. We do a speculum exam, so we swab the cervix. We take a urine sample for pregnancy or any sexually transmitted diseases, provide a contraceptive if necessary, and if it was by someone who may have HIV, we do the HIV prophylactic.”

Fordeczka says these are required by the courts if the victim decides to go that route. But if they don’t, all that evidence is kept in a freezer at the hospital, because the victim may decide to press charges later.

“She may or may not want to take this to the court at the time,” Fordeczka says. “The police might be anxious to get this dealt with and charges laid, but we want to give the victim a chance to process it herself. We can wait for up to a year or we can start the process right then. This is different from the past. The voice of the victim is getting stronger.”

Before, she said, the hospital would automatically call police, taking that choice out of the victim’s hands. Now the victim can work with the sexual assault nurses to decide what action to take and when.

Fordeczka and her partner operate in their own space in the hospital and keep the rape kits (the forensic information they collect from victims). They have responded to 15 to 20 sexual assaults since their program started.

Fordeczka has kind words for the Nelson Police Department.

“The Nelson police are awesome. Our relationship with them has improved drastically. They are more comfortable with our abilities, and it is improving all the time.”

Sarah Bolton, who supports victims of sexual assault and family violence at the Nelson Advocacy Centre, says police departments improve their handling of sexual assault cases as soon as officers learn about sexual power dynamics. Sgt. Nate Holt of the Nelson Police Department says all officers now get some basic training in that, but anyone doing investigations receives more detailed training.

“People think our main goal is to arrest and charge,” Holt says, “but more important is that we avoid re-traumatization. Every time a victim has to report it over again, they have to re-live the incident, so we coordinate [with support people in the community] and try to make them report a minimum number of times.”

“They [police] used to be more old-fashioned,” says Bolton, who has spent the last seven years helping victims of sexual assault and family violence in Nelson. She credits former chief Wayne Holland for bringing the force up to date.

“The aftermath of a sexual assault takes some time,” Bolton says. “Women kind of blame ourselves, so reporting a sexual assault in an empowering way can sometimes take a few months. We talk with them about their response and the bigger picture, how we are socialized as women to take responsibility for things that are not our fault. My message to people who have been sexually assaulted is that there is nothing you can do to cause it. Sometimes authorities’ reaction could be, ‘Well, you liked the guy, or you shouldn’t have flirted with him or drank so much, or been wearing that.’

“I don’t care if you’re drunk, naked, passed out. nobody has the right to do that to to you. One in three women in Canada are sexually assaulted at some point in their life.”

She says sometimes sexual assault victims, especially younger ones, don’t recognize it as an assault.

“They might have been on a drug or someone might have drugged them. They say, ‘I passed out a party and somebody had sex with me.’ They don’t even identify that as as sexual assault.”

Bolton says the incidence of sexual assault may be greater in Nelson than other towns of similar size.

“We have sex work in Nelson, we have hard core drugs, we have gangs, we have sex trafficking. I know all this because of what I do. It’s because of the drug community and transient party culture.”

She points out that women are most at risk of being sexually assaulted by men they are acquainted with, not by strangers. And she says 90 per cent of women who know their attacker don’t report it.

“I think girls still want to be popular. I know people who were raped when they were younger and didn’t realize it was rape. I don’t know if it is any different now. When I was a kid people read Playboy but now they are exposed to hard core porn and everything is so sexual. What people are exposed to now has really shifted. A lot of unhealthy sexuality is being normalized.”

Fordecza, asked what she has learned through her nursing work about sexual assaults in Nelson that the general public might not know, replies: “People don’t realize some of the lost time people experience after going to the bar, you don’t know whether there was a date rape drug or not. You’re not really sure what happened. People need to take care of their drinks. I don’t really think they realize how vulnerable they are. It is beyond just getting too drunk.”

And she says there’s another important thing, a positive one, people should know.

“There is a lot of help out there. Every once on a while you realize what a gem Nelson is, with the supports we have. I worked in the Vancouver jail for a year and a half and the Nelson police are really top notch. They are not out there to do anything but be supportive and I think people need to know that. They need to know just how many support systems are out there. Sarah Bolton is the tip of the iceberg and she is amazing.”

This article was updated on April 1 to state that the nurse sexual assault program at the hospital has handled 15 to 20 cases since it started four years ago, not in the past year as originally reported.