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Small team supports victims of sex assault

Their calls often come in the middle of the night after they have been raped or sexually abused.

For years, sheriff's deputies sent sexual assault victims to crowded hospital emergency rooms, where they faced long, uncomfortable waits for examinations.

That changed in 1999, when Hernando County started the Sexual Assault Victim Examination program, or SAVE.

A victim's telephone call now activates a team of medical professionals and an advocate who meet in a private room at PineBrook Regional Medical Center, where evidence is collected and support offered in a quieter atmosphere.

So far, the SAVE team has treated 44 sexual assault victims in Hernando County, and the program is running well, organizers say.

With one exception: There are only six people on the team, including one doctor and one nurse. Health officials are hoping to add more doctors, nurses and advocates to their rotation list to make sure they have enough people when the calls come.

"We want the victims to be comfortable," said Elizabeth Callaghan, Hernando County Health Department administrator. "We need people to do that."

The SAVE team professionals are trained through the Health Department or the Dawn Center, which operates a shelter for sexual assault and domestic violence victims. They are paid for their service. Doctors earn $130 for an exam, nurses are paid $70 and advocates get $20.

The State Attorney's Office covers the cost, Callaghan said. Also, team members are listed as part-time employees of the Health Department and covered under the agency's insurance, which means they do not need liability insurance, she said. The program was modeled after others in Pasco and Pinellas counties, Callaghan said.

Mary Ann Ardison, a counselor at the Dawn Center, said the SAVE team is providing a better environment for sexual assault victims.

"Try to imagine someone assaulting your body physically and then having to sit in a crowded emergency room," Ardison said. "There are so many emotions. Usually she feels victimized again, just sitting there waiting."

Advocates will hold a victim's hand during the examination or leave the room, whatever the patient prefers. They also offer clothing and shelter and information on counseling and other services.

"It's basically whatever the victim needs," Ardison said. "It's all about the victim."

Lt. Joe Paez of the Sheriff's Office said community services such as the SAVE team help meet needs that deputies frequently cannot while conducting investigations.

"It helps immensely to have someone there who is trained in counseling," Paez said.

Because doctors are collecting evidence, they could be called to testify in court, Callaghan said. However, that often does not happen, she said.

Anyone interested in joining the SAVE team should call Gina Dowler at 754-4067, ext. 114.

"It's very rewarding for those who participate," Callaghan said.

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