SAFE Center of SWVA opens to provide needed service in Pulaski

SAFE Center
Cris Trout, April Bennett and Melissa Harper cut the ribbon officially opening the Safe Center of SWVA in the Free Clinic of Pulaski building along with representatives of its community partners during a ceremony Monday. (Mike Williams/PC Patriot)

It has been a long time in coming, but finally this week April Bennett saw her dream realized with the opening of a community based Forensic Nurse Examiner program in Pulaski.

A ribbon cutting event – hosted by Bennett’s company Medical Consulting Services, LLC which will staff the program – was held Monday afternoon.

SAFE Center of Southwest Virginia is now open in office space provided by the Free Clinic of Pulaski on Fourth Street N.W.

Medical Consulting Services, LLC will staff the center to provide confidential, compassionate, comprehensive, trauma-informed services to adult and adolescent victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, dating violence, and stalking.

safe center medical
Left to right is Cris Trout (Nurse Practitioner)-Medical Director; April Bennett, FNE; and Melissa Harper, FNE. (David Bennett photo)

The center will provide medical care and referrals to help victims heal after an assault and will collect evidence to improve the investigation and prosecution of these cases. These services will be offered to anyone in the Town of Pulaski, Pulaski County, Dublin, or surrounding areas.

A Forensic Nurse Examiner (FNE) is a Registered Nurse or Advanced Practice Nurse who has received special education and training to enable them to provide care to victims of violence. FNEs provide trauma informed care to victims, blending the holistic care of nursing with standards from medicine, science, and law.  A forensic patient is a patient who has a healthcare issue and overlaps with the legal system. While evidence collection and courtroom testimony are part of the FNE role, the medical wellbeing of the patient is the primary concern of the FNE.

“The Free Clinic of Pulaski has very generously donated 2 rooms to Medical Consulting Services, LLC to be used for forensic exams and office space. The Free Clinic has also agreed to allow these rooms to be used for SAFE Center of SWVA. If a patient is not medically stable, they will remain at Lewis Gale Hospital Pulaski and the FNE will examine the patient in the hospital,” Bennett said.

“This grant is giving the Town of Pulaski the opportunity to develop a free-standing clinic outside of a hospital setting. There is only one other clinic similar to this in the state and it is a sexual assault clinic in Eastern Virginia. SAFE Center of SWVA and Medical Consulting Services, LLC wanted to move outside of a hospital and into a more calming and soothing environment to start the patient’s healing process,” she added. The Town of Pulaski was awarded a grant by the Office on Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice (DOJ) to develop the program.

“The Town of Pulaski and Medical Consulting Services, LLC are grateful to the Office on Violence Against Women for providing this opportunity to offer these services to our community and hopefully be able to teach others how to develop a program for their community,” Bennett said.

The program will work with several other local agencies in providing service in Pulaski, including Lewis Gale Hospital Pulaski, the Pulaski Police Department, the Pulaski County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, The Women’s Resource Center of the New River Valley, and the Pulaski County Department of Social Services.

The SAFE Center of SWVA hopes to collaborate with many other community agencies to provide the best care possible to victims.

Bennett has long seen the need for such a program in Pulaski and points to national and local statistics to support her opinion.

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8 percent completed, 2.8 percent attempted). Every 73 seconds another American is sexually assaulted. About 3 percent of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. From 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated, or found strong evidence to indicate that, 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse. Of victims under the age of 18: 34 percent of victims of sexual assault and rape are under age 12, and 66 percent of victims of sexual assault and rape are age 12-17.

For a local perspective on the need for a FNE program, data obtained from law enforcement in the Town of Pulaski and Pulaski County for the year 2018 include: Domestic assaults-387, Sexual assaults-54. These are the victims who reported to law enforcement. There are many who do not wish to report to law enforcement but need the care of an FNE.

The department of social services data from July 2017 to June 2018 includes 2,019 referrals, 560 investigations, and 336 founded cases for Child Protective Services, and 100 reports of elder abuse.