NBC15 Investigates: Assault numbers on the rise

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DANE COUNTY, Wis. (WMTV) - The steady increase of domestic violence incidents is so high, last fall, UnityPoint Health Meriter’s Forensic Nurse Examiner Program (FNE) switched its staffing model to make sure there would be nurses on hand 24/7 for victims.

As the program marks 30 years of service to the community, NBC15 Investigates' Hannah Anderson shared why the services were needed to give support to cases and help victims heal.

Historically, the FNE program was for helping victims of sexual assaults, but Meriter changed the program name in 2016 from Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program (SANE) to Forensic Nurse Examiner Program (FNE) to reflect the larger scope of services and the needs of the community.

The goal of the FNE program, according to Meriter, is to help victims of sexual assault and abuse to begin the healing process. Since 1988, the program has helped more than 10,000 victims begin their path to healing.
The program is staffed by registered nurses who have advanced education and instruction in medical-forensic examinations, psychological and emotional trauma and culturally-sensitive care.

According to data from Meriter, the program has helped the following number of patients in each respective year:

2008: 375
2009: 313
2010: 370
2011: 341
2012: 404
2013: 399
2014: 428
2015: 536
2016: 536
2017: 569
2018: 640

Total: 4911

The numbers showed the numbers nearly doubling since 2008, showing the continued need for the program in Dane County, and nurses like Kathy Veerhusen.

"This room is a safe place and we talk quite a bit about what happened," Veerhusen said.

Veerhusen is the supervisor of the FNE program at Meriter. She's one of many nurses who conduct interviews with victims as soon as they're ready after they come to Meriter after an assault. Victims can share as much or little as they choose.

"I've heard stories of people being trafficked. I’'ve heard stories of people of being manipulated. I've heard stories of children being groomed into sexual behaviors. I've heard stories of elderly being abused in skilled care facilities. I've heard stories of people being taken advantage of of their caregivers of their parents of the loved ones," Veerhusen said.

The interviews happen in a simple room, located at Meriter.

"We start it out by that, and go to, 'are you in any pain?'" Veerhusen said.

In one chair, sits a victim.

"[Then I ask] 'Is there anything medically I need to address right now?" Veerhusen said.

The other, a listener.

"And then we say, 'what happened,'" Veerhusen said.

Veerhusen has been a nurse for 35 years, the last eight working in the FNE program.

"I'd probably be hard pressed to find a time when it didn't move me on a human level when we're talking about the assault," Veerhusen said.

The process begins with sensitivity.

"I've had patients who have come in and have honestly not been able to share anything that happened," Veerhusen said. "I've had patients that have come in and have had drug-facilitated assaults, and they don't remember anything that happened. They only remember they woke up in a stranger's bed with no clothes on."

After listening to their story, Veerhusen asks questions to understand what services they need to heal.

"Our job is to give them choices," Veerhusen said. "They've already been victimized. They need to have choices within their medical examination."

The victim may choose no examination, partial or head-to-toe examination.

During the examination, Veerhusen swabs, takes photographs and collects DNA. Anything gathered, or just the fact the examination happened, may be used if the victim chooses to report to law enforcement. Just because victims use the FNE program, they may still choose not to report or move forward in the legal process.

"We hear all the time from the DA [District Attorney's] office of how invaluable the work that the nurses do, particularly when we get back DNA hits, positive hits on DNA swabs," Veerhusen said.

Ismael Ozanne, the Dane County District Attorney, sat down with NBC15 Investigates to talk about assault charges and how the FNE program helps support a case.
"When evidence is found, it can be helpful to the case," Ozanne said.

Ozanne said sometimes there is no DNA or physical evidence found in the examination.

"That does not mean an assault did not occur, it just means there wasn't DNA evidence left," Ozanne said.

Even with no evidence, Ozanne said, the FNE process and results help.

"The importance of these exams, is not necessarily to generate a conviction," Ozanne said. "Now, if it helps a prosecution, if the victim is willing to report, great, but first and foremost it helps them connect to services."

Services like the Rape Crisis Center in Madison. The Dane County Rape Crisis Center is one of many services the FNE connects victims to as part of follow-up care. The FNE program also helps connect victims to health care providers. The FNE program also may connect victims with the Crime Victim Compensation Fund, which can provide reimbursement for medical care, clothing, time lost on the job and other losses as a result of the assault.

"We care about the survivor. We care about the human," Sephanie Argandona, RCC advocate, said. "Sometimes they [victims] don't know their rights. They don't know what to do."

Argandona and Veerhusen said the advocate is an important part of the process that helps the victim feel comfortable. They may meet a victim at Meriter for the FNE process or at any part of the healing process.

Giving victims options; it's what Argandona helps victims understand and Veerhusen's job to provide.

"What I hear from victims, is being able to talk to someone who believes their story, it helps in the processing of what happened," Veerhusen said. "When they leave, and they're done with the exam, and they say, 'thank you, thank you for being here, thank you for believing in me thank you for helping me along the path.'"

It's a path possible for a survivor willing to tell his or her story, to someone waiting to listen.

The FNE Program accepts insurance providers such as Dean Health Plan, Group Health Cooperative, Quartz Insurance and Unity Health Insurance, as well as most commercial plans including Medicare and Medicaid. If you do not have medical coverage, you may be eligible for assistance from the Crime Victim Compensation Fund or the Uncompensated Care Program through Meriter. However, the FNE program helps all patients regardless of his or her ability to pay. The program is a community effort and is funded in part with financial support from the Meriter Foundation and law enforcement agencies.

Patients by numbers

In the last ten years, Meriter recorded 20.5 percent increase in sexual assault patients and a 1750 percent increase in domestic abuse and assault patients. It also saw an 893 percent increase in the last eight years for strangulation patients. These numbers could include a patient who fits in multiple categories.

74 percent of FNE patients are victims of sexual assault
18 percent of FNE patients are victims of domestic violence
20 percent of FNE patients are victims of strangulation

Survivors range in ethnicity:

81 percent are white, non-Latino
10 percent are black
8 percent are bi-racial
1 percent are from another race, ethnicity

96 percent identify as women
3 percent identify as male
1 percent identify as non-binary, gender-fluid

In 2018, the majority of patients were adults at 66 percent. FNE also helped 14 percent adolescent patients and 20 percent pediatric patients.

Almost half of the patients are seen Sunday through Tuesday.
Monday: 17 percent
Tuesday: 15 percent
Wednesday: 15 percent
Thursday: 14 percent
Friday: 11 percent
Saturday: 12 percent
Sunday: 16 percent