In 2009, lawmakers authorized the Office of Victim Services, within the Connecticut Judicial Branch, to establish a program to train and make available Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners (SAFEs) to adult and adolescent victims of sexual assaults at participating healthcare facilities (PA 09-3). Available through an on-call system, the SAFEs respond in tandem with sexual assault victim advocates and provide timely, compassionate, patient-centered sexual assault forensic examination services to sexual assault victims 13 years or older who present to participating healthcare facilities within 120 hours of the assault.
SAFEs work closely with sexual assault victim advocates, hospital staff, law enforcement, and state’s attorneys to provide victims of sexual assault with comprehensive services and support. Over the last five years, more than 900 patients have been seen by a SAFE in Connecticut. The SAFE Program originally launched on a part-time basis in December 2010 before transitioning to a 24-hour on-call system for six acute care hospitals. Today the program has expanded to nine healthcare facilities, and preparations are underway for an expansion in southwestern Connecticut.
A Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) is a healthcare provider who has been specially trained to provide comprehensive care for the sexual assault patient, who demonstrates competency in conducting a forensic exam, and who has the ability to be an expert or fact witness in court. In Connecticut, SAFEs receive ongoing oversight and quality assurance monitoring within the SAFE Program.
The SAFE program is a program that took several years to build – a true labor of love for the SANE coalition (as it was then called), for sexual assault victim advocates, ER physicians, forensic nurses, hospitals, criminal justice professionals and lawmakers who worked together over the course of three years to envision, design and advocate for the most cost effective, efficient response to sexual assault victims. The SANE coalition was organized by The Alliance (then CONNSACS).
“The successes of the SAFE Program have put Connecticut on the map as a leader in using interdisciplinary cooperation to coordinate victim-centered, trauma-informed expert care to support victims and survivors of sexual assault,” said Laura Cordes, Executive Director of the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence. “This is an example of how a coordinated response to survivors of sexual assault is not only beneficial and compassionate for the survivor, but also benefits participating healthcare facilities and improves the ability of the criminal justice system to hold offenders accountable.”
Judge Patrick L. Carroll III, Chief Court Administrator of the Connecticut Superior Court, praised the program’s model. “The SAFE Program is the embodiment of collaboration: the SAFEs, the sexual assault crisis advocates, hospitals, law enforcement and the forensic lab raising the standard of care and the level of evidence collection to assist victims of sexual assault. It is through cooperation and programs such as this one that we can fulfill our obligation to best serve the residents of the state of Connecticut,” he said.
Remarks by Dr. Guy Vallaro, Director of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection Division of Scientific Services pointed to the importance of SAFEs in the collection of evidence and how that process has improved since the implementation of the SAFE Program. He stated, “Through our work with individuals who have been trained by the SAFE Program we at the Connecticut State Forensic Lab recognize that the quality of collection, packaging of evidence, the accuracy and thoroughness of history documentation, the appropriate chain of custody and the maintenance of the integrity of evidence has improved since the initiation of the Gail Burns-Smith Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner Program.”
State’s Attorney Maureen Platt, Chairperson of the Commission on the Standardization in the Collection of Evidence in Sexual Assault Investigations and State’s Attorney for the Judicial District of Waterbury, spoke of how the SAFE Program helps to improve public safety and hold offenders accountable. “I am very familiar with the important work of the SAFE program. These well trained medical professionals provide much need support for victims of sexual assaults during an extremely difficult and traumatic time,” she said. “These Safe professionals also carefully collect and preserve evidence to aid in the identification of sexual predators. Through their good work, individuals who have committed sexual assaults are held accountable and new sexual crimes are thereby prevented.”
“This 24/7 program has been a highly successful tool to assist victims of sexual assault during a very difficult time in their lives,” said State Senator Terry Gerratana, Senate Chair of the Public Health Committee. “The tireless work of the Connecticut Judicial branch, as well as advocates like the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence and the courageous volunteers from our health care professional community has been a tremendous benefit to our state over the last five years.”
Linda J. Cimino, Director of the Connecticut Office of Victim Services (OVS) expressed deep appreciation for the work of the SAFEs and sexual assault victim advocates. “The dedication of these highly trained individuals is beyond compare,” she said. “I am pleased to honor the SAFEs and advocates who have helped to make this program such a success.”