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At Rape Center, Technology Is State-of-the-Art

Times Staff Writer

Nurse practitioners at the Rape Treatment Center in Santa Monica take digital photographs of victims’ injuries and analyze slides with a high-definition microscope. They use state-of-the art technology to examine sexual assault victims and then present comprehensive rape kits to police investigators.

Unusual for its advanced forensic capabilities, the nonprofit facility serves more than 1,000 victims a year, offering free medical treatment, professional counseling and legal assistance. The clinic is within Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, but treats rape victims exclusively and is in a separate part of the hospital from the emergency room. Rape center staff members also advocate for legislation, testify in criminal cases and train police in the preservation of time-sensitive evidence.

The clinic’s work has become even more important since the LAPD recently revealed that detectives had mistakenly destroyed evidence in 1,000 unsolved rape cases. Biological evidence gathered from victims is compared to DNA profiles on police computer databases and can be key in solving cases.

Center director Gail Abarbanel said the detailed rape kits her staff collects increase the possibility of rapists being found -- if those kits are tested by police.

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“This is the first time there has been a real breakthrough” in the collection of rape evidence, she said. “That’s why it’s criminal not to be able to use what we’ve collected.”

In most cities, rape victims go to hospital emergency rooms, where they are treated after patients with life-threatening injuries or illnesses. During that wait, evidence deteriorates and the chance of catching attackers decreases, Abarbanel said.

LAPD Officer Rashad Sharif, who has taken more than 10 rape victims to the center, said handling such cases used to be a nightmare, because it involved spending endless hours at an emergency room. But at the clinic, he said, the victims are attended to right away.

“We know that everything is going to be top-notch with the way evidence is collected and packaged,” he said. “They are very careful with it. They know the procedures as well [as] or better than some officers.”

The Rape Treatment Center started treating victims in 1974 and opened its new facility in 1999 with funding from film producer Verna Harrah. The center is open 24 hours a day, staffed with one counselor and one nurse practitioner at all times. A doctor is also on call.

Abarbanel said she believes that victims are more willing to seek medical help and report their attacks to police if they are made a priority and cared for with respect. “How victims are treated initially has a huge impact on their willingness to participate in or not participate in the criminal justice system,” she said. “This is a very supportive environment for them.”

Anna, an actress who was raped in Canoga Park three years ago, said she believes that her healing began as soon as she arrived at the center. “They treated me like a queen,” said Anna, who did not want her last name used. “I felt like I was a human being and not just a victim.”

She said she was walking through a parking lot in May 1999 when a man pointed a gun at her and forced her into her car. He drove her around and stopped in an empty lot, where he raped her in the back seat, she said.

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Several minutes later, the attacker jumped out of the car and ran off. Shaking, Anna put her clothes back on and started the car.

When she got to her Westside home, she called police, who recommended that she go to the clinic because of its reputation. Anna remembers sitting down with a counselor in a cozy room with a couch, pillows and tissues on the coffee table

“I can’t tell you how significant even that was,” she said. “It was a soft place to rest. It’s like being a little kid on an airplane and the stewardess hands you a teddy bear because you are traveling alone.”

She explained what happened during the attack and then was led into the medical room, where she said the staff members acted sensitively as they examined her. Throughout the process, she said, they told her what to expect and frequently checked to make sure she was OK.

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“When you feel like you are being well taken care of and your evidence is being treated with the best technology, it is also a way of someone taking what happened to you seriously,” Anna said.

She also attended individual and group counseling through the center and continues to meet with the other three women in her group. Her rapist was never caught.

“That’s always hard,” she said. “It helps that I have some sense of personal resolution, but it’s never quite the same as resolving it in reality.”

That’s where the scientific equipment at the center comes into play, Abarbanel said. Staff members can never guarantee that a case will be solved, but they can ensure that evidence is collected thoroughly. Then they place the case in the hands of the criminal justice system.

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In the clinic, nurse practitioners use a lamp that illuminates semen on the skin with ultraviolet light and a video colposcope that magnifies injuries to 16 times their normal size. They also use a forensic microscope that makes sperm on a slide appear bright yellow against a blue background.

But the digital photographs may be the most valuable technological tool because they show extreme detail of lacerations or bruises.

Before the cameras became available, injuries were simply marked on a piece of paper on a body diagram.

“The forensic ability we have to observe, document and preserve evidence is really specialized for our setting,” said Amie Tishler, who coordinates the nurse practitioners at the center.

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In cases in which victims are reluctant to report the rapes to authorities, the center still collects the evidence and stores it in freezers in case they change their minds.

Abarbanel said her center is doing everything possible to make sure that no more kits are destroyed and that the evidence they send is analyzed in a timely way.

“It’s a simple public safety issue,” she said. “Women are being raped because these kits are not being opened.”


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