Sexual Healing 

County releases sexual assault center study; recommendations include name change, new location, and 20 on-call nurses. Mary Cashiola

Crime victim advocates have gotten vocal.

Or VOCAL, as in the case of Shelby County's new Victims of Crime Advisory League, a group that consulted on the county's recently released plan for the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center (MSARC).

"It reflects all our thinking and the conversations," says Deborah Clubb, head of the Memphis Area Women's Council and a member of VOCAL.

In June, after months of controversy over mismanagement at the city-run Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center, the center was turned over to Shelby County government. Last week, the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department released a 90-day assessment on the future of the center. The report recommended employing a pool of 20 on-call nurses, a name change to the Mid-South Sexual Assault Resource Center, and a new location.

"We tried to step back and assess the organization," says Yvonne Madlock, head of the health department. "This is an opportunity to look at key questions: What should MSARC be? What do we think the caseload should be? What are the qualifications of the individuals who work there?"

Nurses at the center perform forensic exams on sexual assault victims. The evidence gathered during that exam is then used to prosecute rapists. But because of staffing shortages in the spring of this year, two teenage victims were denied care and asked to return at a later date.

The health department estimates that MSARC will perform 60 forensic examinations each month. Before a partnership with Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center and the Child Advocacy Center was brokered in the spring, 50 percent of the victims seen at MSARC were ages 12 and under and adolescents between the ages of 13 and 17 who had been victimized by a relative or caregiver.

Those victims are now being seen at the Child Advocacy Center, while adolescents victimized by a stranger are still being taken to MSARC. Eighty percent of exams given to children can be scheduled while 90 percent of the cases involving adults are emergency exams.

"Most of the clinical exams done for adults are done shortly after an assault has occurred. As you can imagine, those don't always occur between 9 and 5, Monday through Friday," Madlock says. "It's critical to have a pool of nurses available and on call who can report to the center if necessary."

Madlock says the change to county management has provided stability for the center's staff and enhanced the quality of service.

"The availability of nurses working in that pool had diminished in the recent history of MSARC," she says. "We've re-invigorated the pool of nurses that are available for doing sexual assault examinations."

The sexual assault resource center costs about $1.2 million to operate annually, but it receives reimbursements — $750 from the state of Tennessee and up to $1,000 from Mississippi and Arkansas — for each exam performed.

One of the report's recommendations was to co-locate MSARC within the Family Safety Center. MSARC's lease in its current location is up in the spring of 2010, and the new Family Safety Center is supposed to be operational by the beginning of that year.

"I'm glad we ended up speaking up for that," Clubb says. "We think that gives us a centralized outreach point, not just for victims but for prevention programs."

Going forward, Clubb says VOCAL would like to see more rape cases prosecuted.

"There are many more rape kits than there are rape cases in the courts, and there are many reasons for that," she says. "Sex crimes are the hardest to prosecute. There are no witnesses. It really is 'he said, she said' or 'he said, he said.'"

And both VOCAL and the health department would like to see MSARC do more education and outreach. But Madlock says the transfer to county government has been a positive one.

"Administratively, we've been responsive to the needs of the organization," she says. "If it's a need for pencils or a need for policy, we've been there for them."

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