The partnership between Penn Highlands Huntingdon and the Penn State SAFE-T (Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Telehealth Center) was commemorated with a celebration and program update at the Penn Highlands Huntingdon Education Center Monday morning.
The partnership with SAFE-T began one year ago as part of the Penn State University College of Nursing through a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime. In addition, Juniata College, which received its own DOJ grant for an on-campus initiative, contributed some of its funding to J.C. Blair to assist with training.
Through telehealth technology, expert forensic nurses from Penn State College of Nursing assist Penn Highland Huntingdon’s team of sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) via live feed to assist with victim examinations; the experts also provide peer review, plus professional and emotional support for SANEs.
There are a total of three SANEs at Penn Highlands Huntingdon, with two more currently in training.
Shawn Bookhammer, chief nursing officer, noted this program has been a great benefit to Penn Highlands Huntingdon.
“Just because we live in a rural area, that doesn’t mean we should have less services,” he said, noting the SAFE-T Center program is one they didn’t know the area needed it until it truly got underway.
“It’s also great to see the community partners come together, like the hospital, Juniata College, the Abuse Network, the district attorney’s office and police officials, to help make this possible,” said Bookhammer.
Candy Sonnenberg, SANE team coordinator for Penn Highlands Huntingdon, gave some highlights of the work they’ve been doing in the past year.
“We’ve done a lot of continuing education,” she said, noting that some that continuing education included participating in a mock trial so they could learn how to be expert witnesses in a sexual case, trained on how to use state-of-the-art equipment that will allow for better evidence collection and attended the International Association of Forensic Nurses Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana.
“This allowed us to network and learn from nurses across the globe,” said Sonnenberg.
As SANEs, they are now officially trained to deal with sexual assault cases for adults, adolescents, those with mental health issues, intellectual disabilities as well as pediatric cases.
“We’ve had 10 calls since we’ve started the program, and that includes nine consultations and one telephone consultation,” said Sonnenberg. “That is double the number of cases we’ve had in the previous year.”
Sonnenberg said this program has allowed county agencies and officials to form the Sexual Assault Response Team, which creates a protocol to allow all agencies and law enforcement officials locally to establish consistent and compassionate guidelines for response to sexual assault victims.
Beth Birch, executive director of the Abuse Network, said the success of this program can’t be understated, and the SANEs, including Sonnenberg, Stephanie Stratton and Joann Goodman, have been champions of this from the beginning.
“It’s difficult to quantify something like this by number, but more importantly, what long-term impact this will have on a community,” said Birch. “Survivors of sexual assault will feel more positive because of the collaborative efforts we share.”
Jeff Buckley, Huntingdon Borough Police chief, gave credit to Det. Charles Streightiff Jr. for helping borough police lead the way to be a part of the Sexual Assault Response Team for borough police.
“It’s like what Shawn said, we didn’t know we needed it until we were in the process,” he said.
Dan Cook-Huffman, associate dean of students and Title IX coordinator at Juniata College, said they were proud to be part of this initiative.
“We saw this need on campus,” he said. “We saw reports, but we also knew (sexual assault) incidents weren’t being reported through official channels. We’ve tried to do things to make it safe to report, but we weren’t doing enough. This creates structures to make it safer to report.”
Sheridan Miyamoto, director of the SAFE-T Center at PSU, explained the origins of the program, and talked about the overall successes in its first year at the three sites where the program has been implemented.
“We’ve had 50 calls, 40 case consultations, seven that we’ve given advise and only three refusals,” she said.
Additionally, they’ve established paid on-call systems for all SANEs at the three locations, and established a system where advocates are called immediately when they’re dealing with sexual assault victims.
Two other facilities, including Penn Highlands Healthcare in DuBois and Soldiers and Sailors Memorial in Wellsboro, have participated, and Miyamoto said three other sites will go online with the SAFE-T Center soon.