In the dark no longer

Butte County streamlines DNA-testing process in cases of sexual violence

Who’s on SART:
Butte County’s Sexual Assault Response Team includes members from Rape Crisis Intervention and Prevention; Enloe Medical Center; Feather River Hospital; Oroville Hospital; county District Attorney, Probation, Public Health and Sheriff’s offices; police in Chico, Biggs/Gridley, Oroville and Paradise; the Department of Justice Forensic Laboratory; Chico State University; Butte College; Catalyst Domestic Violence Center; Feather River Tribal Health; and Northern Valley Indian Health.

Jacqueline Winters-Hall has a challenging job. As part of her nursing duties at Enloe Medical Center, she gets called when a victim of sexual violence comes to the emergency room. Her first duty is to treat the patient—ease the physical and psychological suffering—but, as a sexual-assault nurse examiner, or SANE, she’s often responsible for collecting evidence on behalf of police and prosecutors.

She strives to be as sensitive and delicate as possible. Still, the process can be invasive for a person so recently violated and feeling so vulnerable. She’s also inevitably asked a question for which, until recently, she had to give a vexing response.

The question: “When will I know something?”

The answer: “I don’t know—you’ll have to work with law enforcement.”

Once a SANE gets physical evidence, it’s catalogued in what’s known as a “rape kit,” which goes to the local police department or sheriff’s office. Then it’s up to investigators to determine when—or whether—to send the kit to a forensic laboratory. Even once that happens, because of case backlogs, there’s no assurance that the evidence will be checked promptly.

“It’s very frustrating for our patients,” Winters-Hall said in a recent phone interview. “It can be up to 18 months before the DNA is tested.”

For victims of sexual violence, that uncertainty can be agonizing.

However, as of Nov. 20, the time-line for receiving results of DNA tests related to cases of sexual violence has changed drastically in Butte County, one of eight California counties included in a program called Rapid DNA Service (RADS). After any sexual-assault examination at Enloe, Feather River Hospital or Oroville Hospital, swabs with DNA will go directly to the California Department of Justice’s forensic lab—the Jan Bashinski DNA Laboratory—in Richmond for testing within approximately two weeks.

If technicians at the laboratory find enough genetic material to form a DNA profile of a suspect, they will upload that information to a national database called Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and look for a match with perpetrators on file. Any “hits” will get forwarded immediately to the district attorney and law enforcement.

Thanks to RADS—and Butte County’s inclusion in the program by California Attorney General Kamala Harris—Winters-Hall and her SANE counterparts now have a more satisfying answer for their patients.

“It gives them such a huge sense of relief to know that … someone’s going to look at their DNA—at least those three swabs—within 15 days,” Winters-Hall said.

The expeditiousness might not only break the case, it also could prevent subsequent assaults by the same perpetrator.

“If that DNA links to another sample of DNA in CODIS, it can link crimes together,” said Stacy Vincent, nurse manager in Enloe’s emergency department. “It can show patterns. We know oftentimes criminals commit 12 to 14 sexual crimes before they’re apprehended, and this allows us to link those crimes and reduce the time it takes to solve the crime itself.”

Thanks to crime-science dramas on TV, the public often has unrealistically high hopes for forensics. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey said the real world is quite different from the punch-a-button-and-get-the-answer realm of CSI.

“We’re not there yet,” Ramsey said. “That’s just not the reality. But the reality is it can be much quicker than what we’re seeing in the ordinary cases—which is months—absent this accelerated program.”

Moreover, there’s often no evidence, said Rocky Cruz, assistant executive director of Rape Crisis Intervention and Prevention in Chico. An attacker may use a condom or force the victim to wash away physical traces, thereby not leaving the DNA needed for a profile and CODIS match.

Butte County joins Marin, Sonoma, Napa, Solano, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Lake counties in the RADS pilot program. Ramsey said Butte made the list not because of a disproportionate amount of sexual violence but because it has an active, organized Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART.

“We have a fairly robust program,” he said—a far cry from two years ago, when local law-enforcement officials had to send victims to other jurisdictions because “we had virtually no SANEs.” Enloe, Feather River and Oroville Hospital “stepped up to do their civic duty,” Ramsey said, and by sending “a couple dozen nurses for training,” local medical centers could conduct the examinations whenever needed.

Last year, according to SART’s annual report, 60 people in Butte County ages 12 and older had forensic medical examinations for sexual assault. Vincent says that’s the approximate total so far this year.

For her part, Cruz hopes the RADS program will help get perpetrators off the street.

“Leopards don’t change their spots,” she said. “These people have predatory behavior. [RADS] is going to get people to stop and think about their actions … and give law enforcement a tool.”

Ramsey hopes RADS reassures victims that “you’re not just going to be shoved in a corner someplace and we’ll get around to you when the system creaks along. No, you are a priority.”

Winters-Hall and Vincent hope that message will encourage more victims to come forward, or at least seek medical attention.

“If they come to us, we will take care of them,” Vincent said, adding that nurses go beyond just collecting forensic evidence. “We will treat them with dignity and help them begin their healing process. We’re here to make sure that their physical needs are met, their emotional needs are met, their spiritual needs are met.

“Before anything else, we’re nurses first. We’re here to help them.”