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Local volunteers provide comfort in aftermath of sexual assault

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 10, 2009 - In March 2007, Ka'Saundra Reynolds changed her morning routine -- a decision that forever changed her life. Her son's car, which she normally drove to work, wasn't available, so she planned to take the bus. That meant Reynolds had to walk her Shih Tzu earlier than usual. As she passed by the neighborhood basketball court in the 5 a.m. darkness, Reynolds, then 59, sensed someone behind her. Suddenly, from out of the shadows, a man emerged, grabbed her, threw her down on her back and tore her pants off.

"He tried to climb on top of me," Reynolds said. "When I realized he didn't have a weapon because he used both hands, I kept fighting him."

With her dog nipping at the attacker's ankles, Reynolds fought back and was able to escape before she was raped. A woman who'd heard Reynolds scream called the police, and after officers finished their work, Reynolds went by ambulance to the emergency room at SSM St. Mary's Health Center.

There, she found much more than the medical care she sought for cuts on her back, legs and hands. Thanks to a volunteer from the YWCA's St. Louis Regional Sexual Assault Center, Reynolds also received encouragement, a change of clothes and the promise of free counseling.

"She reassured my entire family that I would be OK, and she stayed as long as I wanted her to," Reynolds said.

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ON-THE-SPOT VICTIM SUPPORT

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For 20 years, the Sexual Assault Center has offered support to victims through its Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), funded by the Missouri Departments of Public Safety and Health and Senior Services, and Incarnate Word Foundation. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, one or more of 50 SART volunteers is on call. Each volunteer undergoes 40 hours of initial training plus an additional hour every month. Every year, volunteers help some 500 victims of sexual assault, defined as any unwanted sexual contact.

"This is a horrific trauma to go through, but at least we have the resources to help someone through it," said Kathryn Hanrahan, the center's director.

When a sexual assault victim arrives at a hospital, often in a state of shock and disbelief, one of the first things the hospital does is call a SART volunteer. In the case of rape, the volunteer will offer reassurance while nurses collect evidence for a rape kit -- a collection of body fluids, hair, clothing and fibers. When that's done, the volunteer talks with and listens to the client, and provides information about free therapy available through SART.

"I just am so thankful that I can be there and provide them at least one person who believes them, is telling them it wasn't their fault, that they're not a bad person, and that they can survive this," said SART volunteer Lori Curtis who's been helping local victims since 1991.

Curtis, an assistant professor of social work at University of Missouri at St. Louis, was drawn to help victims after she came to understand the bigger picture of sexual assault.

"Violence against women fits into a larger system of sexism in our society," Curtis said. "It's part of our consciousness that 'this could be me' and that limits what we may do. [We think] 'I really want to go do this, but it might not be safe for me.'"

But victims of sexual violence are not always women. Last year, SART volunteers helped seven men. For men, such an assault often brings a unique set of feelings, Curtis said, remembering a young man in his early 20s.

"He felt so much shame and he was convinced if anybody looked at him, they would know he'd been raped," Curtis said. "It just broke my heart."

COUNSELING, CONVICTION BRING CLOSURE

Depression, flashbacks and post-traumatic stress disorder are just some of the issues with which survivors of sexual assault must deal, according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network. To treat these long-term effects, the Sexual Assault Center offers ongoing, no-cost counseling, whether the victim has seen a SART volunteer or not.

At first, Reynolds thought she'd be fine without therapy. But after two months of constant calls from the attacker, who took her cell phone (Reynolds got a new phone but didn't change the number), she began having nightmares.

"It started bothering me even more when they hadn't caught him" after two months, Reynolds said.

Six months of counseling taught Reynolds to channel her anger into writing poetry, crocheting afghans and telling herself, "I'm a good person. None of this is my fault." But after the police caught her attacker, with the help of DNA scraped from under her fingernails on the day of the assault, her insecurity and nightmares returned. She went back into therapy.

Later, after her attacker pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, Reynolds breathed a huge sigh of relief. "It made me feel very powerful. He's going to jail; I'm out of my jail."

DNA COLLECTION, PRESERVATION CRITICAL

Victims stand a much greater chance of successfully prosecuting their attackers if evidence is collected quickly and thoroughly. Nurses and doctors who undergo sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) training become pros at collecting rape kit materials.

"When a victim comes in, they really have one shot of getting evidence collected. If it gets messed up the first time, they can't go back and redo it," said Kathy Howard, an emergency room nurse and director of the rape crisis center at St. Mary's Health Center.

Over the past 10 years, Howard has taught hundreds of medical professionals and police officers all over the St. Louis area how to collect evidence, particularly DNA. The collection of DNA is critical because if the attacker is a stranger, he may not be found until there is a DNA hit in the system, often years down the road. Preserving DNA is important even if the victim isn't sure about pressing charges immediately following the assault.

"There's no longer a statute of limitations on felony rape so you could be getting cases for the next 20 years off [the evidence you collect] in the ER. You just don't know," Howard said.

While St. Mary's has 10 SANE nurses -- the most of any hospital in the area -- almost every St. Louis ER has a handful. Victims should call an emergency room before going to make sure a specially trained nurse is on duty, Howard said.

Since the training program began, the quality and quantity of evidence have improved dramatically, according to Christine Krug, assistant circuit attorney for St. Louis. While she could not offer specific data on conviction numbers, Krug said information that nurses gather, by knowing what questions to ask, provides invaluable assistance.

"The SANE nurses [engage in a] thoughtful discussion in which they find out things like, 'He licked me behind the ear' or 'he ejaculated there,' and then they swab there and get the saliva" or semen, Krug said.

Not one but two SANE nurses collected evidence in Reynolds' attack. After the conviction of her attacker, and counseling for her own trauma, she's ready to help others. Reynolds plans to become a SART volunteer herself. She has gone back to college and is considering a career as a therapist. She credits the SART program for turning a terrible situation into an inspirational journey.

"They helped so much," Reynolds said. "I've become stronger person."

Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer in St. Louis.

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