In a front room of a two-story house in River Falls, Wis., a basket of children’s toys sits on the bottom shelf of a bookcase. The back room to your right—the conference room, they call it—doesn’t have a sterile desk but instead a kitchen table, and the professionals who work here are considering a homier paint job than dark green. They’ve brought in an easel with a large pad of drawing paper that stands mid-room. But in the back room to your left, you’ll find a medical exam table. Swabs, bandages and speculums sit in drawers; recent additions include bubbles and other distraction toys that won’t damage the medical equipment. Gowns now come in smaller sizes.
These toys and smaller gowns are sobering upgrades, as this space is headquarters of the St. Croix Valley Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), which, starting this year, will serve child victims as well as teens and adults. Having aided victims 13 years old and older for more than 12 years—around 50 patients annually over the past few years—the response team now has expertise in pediatrics. Its free services include a medical examination by a forensic nurse and emotional support and legal guidance from a volunteer response advocate.
The easel is for children to use while a specially trained forensic nurse gathers details about the sexual assault. Two newly installed cameras and an ambient microphone are also for children—“to minimize trauma,” says Brooke Marlow, advocacy coordinator: She wants children to have to recount what happened to them only once.
Before the expansion, volunteers tending SART’s 24-hour crisis line directed callers reporting pediatric abuse in Polk, Pierce and St. Croix counties to Midwest Children’s Resource Center in St. Paul.
“The parent doesn’t want to be referred somewhere else after they were brave enough to make that first call,” says volunteer response advocate Erin Peterson. Parents and police officers don’t always find it easy to transport young victims from the Valley to St. Paul, especially when the victims have school and extracurricular activities—an unfortunate reality, since time is of the essence in collecting evidence.
Without similar resources in the area, calls kept coming in.
Melissa Vesperman, a forensic nurse coordinator, wanted to ensure SART’s eight to 11 nurses offered sufficient adolescent and adult services before taking on youth. There was an emotional element to this increased expertise, too.
“As a mother, I thought, ‘Will this affect me?’ ” Vesperman says—“coming home and knowing that these awful things happen to children in our communities?”
Then in 2014 Kristi Pavek, SART’s executive director at the time, urged Vesperman and another nurse to attend a course on pediatric exams. “It’s all done with their cooperation, and it’s really not very invasive,” Vesperman says of the exams. “It’s encouraging for [kids] to know that their body’s OK.” In time, four other forensic nurses agreed to go through training; SART attained the grants it needed to expand from the Fred C. and Katherine B. Anderson Foundation and United Way. Over a weekend last November, volunteer response advocates received training, too, from child advocacy center First Witness Duluth.
Advocates are “whatever we need to be,” says Peterson, a volunteer of more than 12 years. “Part of our role is explaining what’s going to happen in the forensic medical exam [and] a bit about what could happen going through the court system.”
Advocacy for adults might mean connecting them with resources or something as simple as holding hands during the interview process. For children, advocates correspond with parents and family only.
SART collaborates with seven regional hospitals as well as law enforcement in Polk, Pierce and St. Croix counties, relying on them for referrals. The District Attorney’s office trusts forensic nurses at SART to collect evidence. Now SART must establish itself among collaborators as a place for children.
“We know the community needs it,” Vesperman says. “We have the location. And now I know I have the skills.”