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Bringing dignity to rape victims

She came back from the pool carrying her towel, and as soon as she was inside the apartment he was behind her with the knife. He told her to lie down on the floor and then he put the towel over her head and he raped her. When he was gone, she called 911 and the police came and they took her to the hospital.

And then something remarkable happened. She was treated with sensitivity and great care by people whose only duties were to look after her, explaining what was happening as the semen and saliva samples were taken, as her pubic hair was combed for evidence, as she dropped her bathing suit onto butcher paper.

The rapist took away her sense of safety and dignity, and the women who held and helped her tried to give it back. When the exam was over they invited her to go into an adjoining bathroom and take a shower. "I felt as if I was in that shower forever," recalls Erica, whose assailant comes to trial in Tulsa, Okla., soon.

What happened to her after the violation was done and the experts took over sounds like it should be standard operating procedure for sexual assaults. The sad truth is that it is a program so exceptional that it has just been given an Innovations in State and Local Government Award from the Ford Foundation and the Kennedy School at Harvard.

When, earlier this month, a rape victim in Brooklyn complained that she felt the horror of the rape had been compounded by the humiliation of the hospital, where she had to wait in an examining gown amid handcuffed male prisoners, ordinary New Yorkers were shocked. But not those familiar with sexual assault.

Many city hospitals keep rape victims waiting for hours while the staff treats stab and gunshot wounds. The exam that a rape victim undergoes to gather forensic evidence may take as long as three hours, and it is frequently performed by a resident on rotation, who may never have done such a procedure before. Linda Fairstein, the sex crimes prosecutor in Manhattan, remembers one exam performed by an oral surgeon because he was the only available doctor.

A program called Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners has changed that in Tulsa. Today, any rape victim in that city is taken to the quiet of what was once a hospital birthing center, where she is met by a volunteer advocate and examined by a specially trained nurse.

While rape victims frequently face the added indignity of getting a bill for their exam, the SANE exam is free, the nurses paid a $100 fee by the state Victim's Compensation Board.

The nurses serve a dual function, skilled at forensics _ every case brought to trial in which a SANE nurse has testified has resulted in a conviction _ as well as the human touch. At the end of what can be a humiliating exam, victims are invited to shower. Fresh clothes and underwear are available.

"Before, we were having victims walking out in a hospital gown," said Helenmarie Zachritz, the program coordinator.

Being set down in the manic maelstrom of city emergency rooms is not only horrible for rape victims but may also impede the gathering of evidence.

America goes through cycles with social disorders, hashing out problems until it seems that they have been fixed. In a year or two, we will feel as if we've dealt with domestic violence, when all we really did was talk about it. And rape? Oh, rape's been done.

Well, it hasn't; but what can be done and has been done in Tulsa, is to create some sensible and humane way of treating its victims, not just because that is kind and good but because it may better serve the cause of justice.

The man who police believe raped Erica is in jail now; because she never saw his face, if he is convicted it will be on the basis of DNA evidence collected by a SANE nurse.

"Had I been taken to an emergency room," Erica says, "and if I'd had to be around a lot of people, I think I would have turned around and gone out the door. And then he'd still be out there."