Sitka’s sexual assault response team was established as a multidisciplinary and collaborative effort to tend to the needs of survivors after their assault. (Top row, left to right: Tina Bachmeier, Peg Blumer, Catherine Rogers, Amy Paige, Scott Helfrich, Salle Madison, Gary Cranford; Bottom row: Kelsey Carney, Diane Linn, Deanna Moore, and Lisa Brooks. Photo courtesy of Kelsey Carney)

ISitka law enforcement, nurses and survivor advocates are teaming up to combat sexual assault and better respond to the needs of its victims.

Through a grant from the Department of Justice, The Sitka Tribe of Alaska is partnering with the Sitka Police Department, Sitkans Against Family Violence and the Southeast Regional Health Consortium to establish a sexual assault response team. The SAR team would be more efficient and minimize the revictimization of survivors, members said.

“Being a survivor of sexual assault, can have profound life changes for the individual that’s had that experience,” Deanna Moore, an advocate with Sitkans Against Family Violence on the team, said.

Through a near $900,000 grant from the Department of Justice, the Sitka Tribe of Alaska aims to work with victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault, human trafficking, dating violence and stalking in part by forming a local SAR team.

For many victims, retelling their story is one of the consequences of trauma, Moore said. By collaborating more closely on the sexual assault cases they handle through their work, the SAR team aims to minimize the times survivors have to relive their story.

“By nature of that kind of trauma, it feels very isolating. They feel like the only one who has ever had that experience,” Moore added. “It makes it more difficult to talk about and kind of perpetuates the myth that it isn’t happening when we know better than the statistics that it is.”

About 1 in 4 women in Sitka have experienced some kind of sexual violence in their lifetime, according to a victimization survey conducted by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center in 2012.

Members of the SAR Team have undergone training to better respond to sexual assault cases and the needs of survivors in their roles. But they’ve also learned to better understand how their fellow team members work.

Nurses on the team are trained on criminal justice proceedings, like how to collect DNA and photographic evidence and be effective expert witnesses if the sexual assault case goes to court.

SAR team coordinator Kelsey Carney with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska said that synergy between medical and law enforcement procedures means the Sitka Police Department doesn’t have to send victims to SAR Teams to Juneau to collect evidence.

“That’s not very trauma informed,” Carney said. “It’s not ideal for people to be sent away from their community, away from their family, away from the support system that they have.”

Susan Ward is a nurse for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium and one of the RNs working on the SAR team. She’s sometimes the first person victims talk to about their trauma, as she treats them for injuries or performs tests for sexually transmitted diseases.

Ward says she relies on advocates like Moore to support victims as they grapple with reporting their assault to police.

“I think sometimes patients are afraid to report it,” Ward said. “They don’t want to go through the examination and the testing and everything that needs to be done.”

Reporting sexual assault or other traumatic events to police is easier said than done. Sitka Police Department Sergeant Gary Cranford said the investigation that follows can be invasive.

“A typical exam, forensic exam can take anywhere from 4 to 6 hours,” Crandford said. “There are some personal questions that have to be asked for a proper investigation and it may put some stressors on the victim that they’re not expecting.

Retelling the story of an assault to medical personnel, law enforcement and to advocates can bring that trauma back to the surface over and over again.

Members of the SAR team know how to work with survivors of sexual assault individually, Moore said, but together they streamline their approach.

When a victim presents themselves to police or the emergency room, the SAR team meets to develop a comprehensive plan of care for individual victims and communicates as they recover.

By understanding each other’s roles, the team can work more efficiently and reduce the need for victims to relive their trauma.

“Really, I think that’s the point for the victim, to minimize any unnecessary revictimization,” Moore said. “That person’s life is altered. The filter through which they see the world is altered.”

But the SAR Team hopes that by pulling their organizations together, they can support and return a sense of normalcy to survivors after their sexual assault.

If you have suffered sexual violence and would live to connect with an advocate for support, you can call SAFV at (907) 747-3370 or through their crisis lines: (907) 747-6511 or (800) 478-6511.