Bucks Community College offers course for much-needed sexual assault victim nurses

A new course starting in September at Bucks County Community College aims to fill the need for more nurses in the county who are certified to work with sexual assault victims.

The 40-hour course, which will be held Mondays and Wednesdays throughout the month, will provide training on how to meet the physical and emotional needs of victims.

The program focuses on interviewing victims, collecting evidence and giving expert testimony along with providing information on topics like intimate partner violent rape trauma, drug-facilitated sexual assault and human trafficking.

The program meets requirements for nurses who need 30 hours of continuing education every two years, and those who complete the course will be certified as Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE).

In a program established last October through the Network of Victim Assistance (NOVA), the county currently has 13 registered nurses working on as a contract basis as on-call examiners.

These nurses, working through NOVA, are specially trained to conduct exams on sexual assault victims, and are called to hospitals when a victim comes to the emergency room. They also work in tandem with other health care providers and local law enforcement to provide continuity of care, and minimize any additional trauma a victim may experience after seeking help.

“Historically, sexual assault victims weren’t looked at with priority in emergency rooms because many times there were no severe physical injuries,” explained Debbie Nugent, SANE coordinator for NOVA. As a result, they would often be left waiting for hours to be seen, and would have to tell their story multiple times to medical and law enforcement personnel.

“With the development of SANE programs, those victims are now viewed as priority trauma victims in emergency rooms,” she continued.

Now, SANE nurses in Bucks County are able to arrive at a hospital within an hour of being alerted about a sexual assault victim. They stay with the victim and are trained to minimize the stress in what is often a very personal exam during a process that can take hours.  

The nurses work as part of a multi-disciplinary team that includes other health care professionals, law enforcement and victim advocates. It’s Nugent’s hope that, by minimizing trauma, victims are more likely to explore follow-up care, counseling and legal advocacy options.

“As stressful as the exam can be, the victim has the right to set the pace for it, as well as decline any part of it they don’t want to experience,” said Nugent. “Having a SANE nurse help  them understand their rights is an important part of the process.”

However, the job comes with challenges that have made it hard to fill. There’s a high burnout rate for SANE nurses, who regularly interact with sexual trauma victims, and since it’s a contract, on-call position, those nurses also have separate full-time jobs.

While NOVA currently has three more nurses in training, Nugent hopes to have around 20 nurses so they can provide 24-7 coverage without some nurses needing to pick up extra on-call times as some do currently.

“We ask for 48 hours a month and we’re now able to cover the schedule up to 95 percent of the time,” said Nugent, “But it’s important for nurses to get a break.”

SANE training takes place from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays from Sept. 12 to Sept. 26 in the Allied Health Building on the Bucks Community College campus, 275 Swamp Road in Newtown. For information or to register, call 215.968.8409 or visit www.bucks.edu/con-ed. For information on SANE, visit www.novabucks.org. Victims of sexual assault are encouraged to call the NOVA hotline at 800.675.6900.

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