How to preserve evidence after a sexual assault, rape; DNA evidence lasts up to four days

Tough decision to visit ER after assault can save evidence for investigations

By Courtney Friedman - VJ, Reporter

SAN ANTONIO - A sexual assault or rape is traumatizing, devastating and life altering.

After surviving such an experience, preserving the evidence may be the farthest thing from the victim's mind. The reality, however, is that DNA evidence only lasts for a specific number of hours.

"It's extremely difficult to make the decision to come in. There's a lot of victim-blaming that goes on, but that is not done at all when they get in with the SANE," said Kayce Ward, a specialized nurse for the Methodist Healthcare System.

Ward is a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, or SANE.

"Not only do we collect evidence but we approach them medically to make sure, medically, they're OK, that they weren't exposed to any sexually transmitted diseases, to include emergency contraception," Ward said.

Survivors can go to any emergency room for that medical exam, but for a forensic exam to collect evidence for law enforcement, there are only two hospitals in San Antonio with trained nurses.

Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital in the Medical Center treats survivors age 13 and older.

The Children's Hospital of San Antonio in downtown sees survivors age 16 and younger.

Ward is the SANE coordinator at Methodist Specialty and Transplant Hospital. The clinic there is open 24/7 and offers services to 33 counties.

"We have a room, a closet, that is specifically for evidence," Ward said. "Law enforcement comes and picks it up."

Ward said DNA evidence has to be collected within 96 hours, or four days, of a sexual assault.

If a survivor chooses to undergo the forensic exam, SANE calls in a trained chaplain and a Rape Crisis Center advocate.

"Our advocates are dispatched around the clock to meet with a survivor, hold space with the family, provide information about your rights to navigate all the next steps because that can be really overwhelming," said Andrea Lopez, community engagement director at the Rape Crisis Center.

The forensic exam is in two parts and takes hours to complete.

"We are getting a history of what happened during the assault. We do a physical exam, head to toe. We're looking for trauma related to the assault," Ward said.

Ward said the best thing a survivor can do to preserve evidence is to come in with his or her clothes still on. She said that is difficult for many people and that is OK if they cannot do it. 

Ward said, if the victim has removed the clothes, the victim is asked to put them in a bag made of paper or cloth. A pillowcase works, too. 

The one thing you shouldn't do is put it in plastic because the condensation inside could ruin DNA evidence.

The exam rooms are locked and unmarked and survivors have a separate waiting room.
That is all done in an effort to create a sense of safety at a time survivors need it most.

Ward said the exam can be scary and even traumatizing, but for many survivors, it offers a sense of control and empowerment.

"We have patients that come in. They won't make eye contact with us. They barely speak. And after we spend the duration of the exam with them, they give you a hug. They're able to hold their head up. They feel empowered to take the next step," she said.

After the exam, SANE and Rape Crisis Center advocates help direct the survivors to extra resources that can aid in recovery.

Getting that forensic exam does not mean you're reporting the assault to law enforcement.

You can get the exam, have the evidence stored and then take your time to decide what your next step will be.

The evidence is saved at a lab in Garland, Texas, for up to two years until it is disposed of because of the need for space.

You can call the 24-Hour Rape Crisis Center Hotline at 210-349-7273

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