Compassionate care – Flight Nurse Heads Program to Assist Sexual Assault Victims – Capt Victoria Bitar to head Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program – Brief Article
Pamela S. Nault
For victims of sexual assault, the insult to their dignity doesn’t end with the crime. A long wait in a hospital emergency room, an invasive medical examination, an intrusive law enforcement investigation and, oftentimes, an embarrassing public trial follows … that is, if they report the crime.
This treatment, lack of faith in the criminal justice process and fear of reprisal from the assailant combine to silence 68 percent of sexual assault victims, according to U.S. Justice Department statistics.
In May 2001, New Jersey legislators gave a voice to sexual assault victims by passing legislation and committing resources to improve the care and treatment they receive and to provide assistance to prosecutors to make offenders accountable. The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program, mandatory in the Garden State’s 21 counties, is expected to be a role model for other states. Spearheading the SANE program in Essex County, where one-third of the state’s sexual assaults occur, is an Air Force Reserve flight nurse.
“This program provides immediate response with compassionate care for sexual assault victims, improved evidence collection and, ultimately, higher conviction rates,” said Capt Victoria Bitar, a six-year Reservist with the 514th Air Mobility Wing, McGuire Air Force Base, N.J.
As program coordinator, Captain Bitar is one member of a sexual assault response team (SART). Other members are a rape care advocate, a forensic SANE and a law enforcement official. When a victim comes into one of the county’s six participating hospitals, the SART arrives within 45 minutes. Captain Bitar works with all the parties involved to interpret medical evidence, prepare and arrange witness and expert testimony, and assist the prosecutor with grand jury presentations and court proceedings.
“We’ve come a long way with victim rights,” said Captain Bitar, a member of the International Association of Forensic Nurses. She received SANE training at Rutgers University in 1999 and forensic SANE certification from the Office of the Attorney General, state of Texas, in May. “This team approach ensures that victims understand their rights, are treated with dignity and have an advocate throughout the process.”
“Every step in the process is critical,” Captain Bitar said, “This team of professionals provides care and treatment for the physical, emotional and psychological aspects of trauma.
In the United States, a woman is sexually assaulted every two minutes, according to the U.S. Justice Department. In cases involving adults, the offender is a stranger in 25 percent of incidents, a family member in 12 percent, and an acquaintance in 63 percent. Date rape, in particular, appears to be a growing problem.
Clara Rodriguez Jacobs, Essex County assistant prosecutor and sexual assault rape analysis director, said high-profile court cases have brought DNA forensic science to the forefront of public consciousness. “It’s a very complex, precise science that determines not only who the assailant is but exonerates other suspects,” she said. “We rely on the SANE coordinator to interpret this important evidence to help us prosecute a case.”
During the summer months, an average of four rapes are reported daily at the East Orange General Hospital emergency room in Newark, N.J., according to Denise Jason, a registered nurse and director of the ER.
“Word is getting out,” Captain Bitar said. “As a result of SANE, more victims are reporting sexual assaults, knowing they will be heard, assistance is available for recovery, and assailants are being apprehended, prosecuted and punished.”
Bitar added that victims are often empowered by participating in the prosecution of offenders, and a successful outcome can be an important step in the healing process.
The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office of Victim Witness Advocacy, directed by Pam McCauley, supports crime victims by providing food vouchers, clothing, child care, temporary shelter, relocation services, mental health counseling, medical costs, and other emergency and referral services, as needed.
James A. Gilson, New Jersey deputy attorney general, said New Jersey is the first state in the nation to enact a law imposing a fine on people convicted of sex crimes. “This landmark law adds a fine of $800 to the existing fines and penalties that criminal offenders must pay’ he said. “The monies collected are designated for the development and operation of the forensic nursing services of the state.”
Captain Bitar’s appointment as SANE coordinator by Essex County prosecutor Donald C. Campollo culminates an 18-year nursing career. A New York City native, she earned a registered nurse degree, with honors, from Borough of Manhattan Community College in 1984. Employed as an emergency room nurse, she returned to the classroom and in 1999 received a bachelor’s degree in nursing, with honors from Sigma Theta Tau International Honor Society of Nursing, from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. Captain Bitar, who is the mother of two college students, is working on a master’s degree in nursing at Pace University in Pleasantville, N.Y.
Caring for family and contributing to community are important, Bitar said, but so is training as a Reserve aeromedical evacuation flight nurse, which allows her to also care for her “military family…. There’s not a higher calling than serving your country and caring for the men and women in uniform,” said the major-select, who is scheduled to pin on her gold oak leaves in May 2002.
Training and “real-world” missions on board the 514th’s C-141 Starlifters have taken Bitar throughout the United States, Portugal, England, Italy and Germany, as well as Kuwait, Turkey and Spain. Among the many operations in which she has participated is Southern Watch, where Air Force and coalition aircraft patrol southern Iraq to enforce a U.N. ban on Iraqi military flights below the 32nd parallel.
“I really feel like I’m making a difference in people’s lives, and that’s what nursing is all about,” Captain Bitar said. “I have the best of both worlds serving my country and community.”
Ms. Nault is chief of the Community Relations/Environmental Division in the Air Force Reserve Command Office of Public Affairs, Robins AFB, Ga.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Reserve Officers Association of the United States
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