North shore agencies launch new cooperative protocol for handling sex-assault cases

St. Tammany and Washington parishes are taking a new team approach to investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults, a process that St. Tammany Parish Coroner Charles Preston said will focus on victims and make prosecution of their assailants more efficient.

Victims will be examined by a specially trained nurse instead of emergency room physicians who must tend to other patients, he said. Preston’s office recently created the Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner Program, hiring nurse examiner Paulette Lill. She and three or four part-time nurses will handle the examinations, which will be carried out away from the noise and bustle of the emergency room, Preston said.

As a former emergency room doctor, Preston said he’s conducted as many as 60 examinations of sexual assault victims. In an ER, victims are being treated alongside victims of gunshot wounds, vehicular accidents and other life-threatening situations, he said.

But the crime victim is the sole focus of the nurse examiner, who will be able to conduct a more thorough medical exam, gather physical evidence and testify in court.

Randy Smith, Slidell police chief and sheriff-elect for St. Tammany, said the nurse examiner also will provide a second set of eyes on the case.

Preston predicted the new approach will increase reporting of sexual assaults, although he wouldn’t hazard a guess at how big a spike there might be. In 2015, St. Tammany Parish law enforcement agencies reported a total of 38 sexual assaults.

The DNA lab and the Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner Program are both housed in the Coroner’s Office. They make up the Sexual Assault Response Team, along with law enforcement agencies, local hospitals and the 22nd Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

Those team members came together Wednesday for an initial training session that also included representatives of the St. Tammany and Washington Parish sheriff’s offices, state police and the Abita Springs, Bogalusa, Covington, Mandeville, Pearl River and Slidell police departments. Representatives of Slidell Memorial Hospital and Ochsner Health System also were present.

Lill has been at work creating protocols for the team and seeking grant money, but she’s also already responded to the first assault case, Preston said.

He cited a law passed in 2015 as the genesis of the team. The state Legislature adopted Act 229, which removed a requirement that victims of sexual assault go to police before getting a medical exam. It also ended the billing of victims for the exams, which Preston described as “revictimizing the victim,” and called on the state Department of Health and Hospitals to create a regional plan for evaluating sexual assault victims.

The Coroner’s Office participated in a DHH conference and accelerated plans to launch the nurse examiner program, he said.

Follow Sara Pagones on Twitter at @spagonesadvocat.

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