ROWC and the HAVEN Domestic Violence Center

A note from Jeanne Sarnacki: Today's (Oct. 17, 2007) Free Press features an article on the front page about HAVEN's domestic violence center in Royal Oak. The Royal Oak Woman's Club, and ROWC Group 7 specifically, played a major part in this site opening in Royal Oak. Members of Group 7 worked with the City Commission and the city's legal staff to get this site approved for use by HAVEN. We also raised funds for the site's furniture and equipment needs. Members even planted the flowers and shrubs that surround the site.

Today there is some evidence that this type of care leads to an increase in succesful rape prosecutions, and it also directly contributes to a speedier recovery time for the victims.

The Royal Oak Woman's Club is proud to have played a part in this worthwhile effort.

Making criminals pay for justice
Proposal would fund rape-victim programs

by Bill Laitner, Free Press Staff Writer • October 16, 2007

Women who've been raped in Oakland County are whisked by police to a tiny old house in Royal Oak.
There, often in the dead of night, the women are met by a specially trained nurse, ready with high-tech equipment often not available at hospitals.

In the bungalow's spotless examining room, the nurse calms them while collecting evidence -- tissue, sperm, hair, clothing fibers and more -- for safekeeping until detectives can pick it up for use in court. But money to pay for these nurse-examiner services is drying up, despite the services' contributions to higher conviction rates.

A bill passed unanimously in the state House in September would require anyone convicted of a serious crime, including rapists, to pay increased fines, a portion of which would go into a fund to support the services.

"These are such important programs," said Beth Morrison, executive director of HAVEN, the domestic-violence shelter that operates the Oakland County nurse-practitioner program. In this budget-strapped era, she added, having criminals pay for the programs "just makes so much sense."

The legislation, if passed, could net $1.6 million a year -- enough to support current programs and start a few new ones around the state.

Since the Royal Oak program began in 2001, sexual assault convictions are up, and victims are recovering better after being seen by the specialized female nurses.

In addition, the nurses are providing police with better evidence and giving victims treatment that is more compassionate than that found in most hospitals, according to studies. Increasingly, hospitals, too, have in-house nurse-examiner programs.

But years of cuts in federal funding threaten the future of the Royal Oak program and others like it around the state. In Royal Oak, a nonprofit group spends about $175,000 a year on the nurse-examiner program after paying the lease of $1 a year to the city, which owns the cottage-size bungalow.

There are 15 other nurse-examiner programs in Michigan, including one in Mt. Clemens for Macomb County victims and one in Detroit for Wayne County victims. All of the programs struggle, say the nonprofit groups that run them.

Law enforcement officials say the funds generated by the proposed legislation would be money well spent. Nationally prominent researcher and psychologist Rebecca Campbell of Michigan State University agrees.

In September, Campbell and two colleagues concluded a 12-year study in one Michigan county that looked at how police rape investigations of sexual assaults fared before and after a nurse-examiner program began. She wouldn't identify the county.

"We found that prosecution rates were significantly higher after 'the program' began," Campbell said Thursday.

Before the nurse examiners were available, rape victims were seen at hospitals. Out of 156 cases, MSU researchers found, 24% of the assault suspects were convicted, 66% were not prosecuted, and the rest were either acquitted or the charges were dropped.

After the nurse-examiner program began, out of a total of 141 cases, MSU researchers found, 29% of the assault suspects were convicted. Meanwhile, 58% were not prosecuted. The rest were either acquitted or the charges were dropped.

Campbell will present her findings Saturday at the annual scientific assembly of the International Association of Forensic Nurses in Salt Lake City.

Several state representatives have sought ways to pay for nurse-examiner programs by increasing the fines paid by those convicted of serious crimes.

The first such bill was proposed in 2003 by then state Rep. Dave Woodward, D-Royal Oak. It languished session after session. In early September, the current version introduced by state Rep. Marie Donigan, also a Royal Oak Democrat, and cosponsored by Paul Condino, D-Southfield, was passed by the House unanimously.

Now, the Sexual Assault Victims' Medical Forensic Act awaits action by the state Senate Judiciary Committee, Donigan said last week.

"What we did was add $5 onto the money" that anyone convicted of a felony or high misdemeanor pays "so it goes from $40 to $45, and $50 to $55, depending on what the crime is, and this extra $5 will go to nurse-examiner programs around Michigan," she said.

Nurse-examiner programs -- such as the one in Royal Oak -- offer rape victims many advantages over typical hospital emergency rooms, said Diane Zalecki, who heads the program in Royal Oak and is its only full-time employee.

In Oakland County, any rape victim who calls police is likely to have an officer drive her to the Royal Oak site. There, Zalecki said, the victim gets a level of privacy and security unavailable in a hospital's public waiting room, a place to shower after an exam, on-the-spot counseling and an advocate who will accompany the victim to court.

Police and prosecutors find advantages, too. After interviewing a victim, officers can tell a nurse-examiner what evidence they'd like, anything from the skin that may be under the victim's fingernails to traces of the assailant's hair and sperm.

Evidence is collected with high-powered magnifiers and cameras, special equipment that few hospitals possess because they require special training and would rarely be used in busy emergency rooms, Zalecki said.

Statewide, some nurse-examiner programs in hospitals are kept separate from emergency rooms, said Angelita Gunn, associate director of the Michigan Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence in Okemos.

When victims go to a regular hospital emergency room, however, they might wait for hours to see a nurse not trained for such an exam. Or they might lose patience and leave without evidence being collected, ending much hope for a conviction, Gunn said last week.

Contact Bill Laitner at 248-351-3297.