CADILLAC — Wexford County Detective Sgt. Chris Piskor is frustrated.
As a detective, the clock is always ticking. This is especially true in sexual assault cases. Piskor said DNA is the best way to answer questions “beyond a reasonable doubt.‘ When a sexual assault investigation is lacking DNA evidence it hinders a case because it automatically becomes a “he said, she said‘ argument. Jurors are typically not impressed with that, according to Piskor.
In sexual assault cases, it takes a specialized medical exam conducted by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner to get DNA evidence. The clock starts ticking as soon as the assault occurs.
The SANE examination needs to be done within the first 100 hours after the assault to ensure the biological specimens are usable. Wexford County, however, doesn’t have access locally to a person qualified to perform these particular examinations.
This means a victim has to travel to have the exam done, according to Piskor.
“There is a kit that is provided to us by the Michigan State Police. It is fairly straight forward. It has step-by-step instructions on how to complete the collection,‘ Piskor said.
When an accusation of sexual assault comes to Piskor, he said basic information is gathered, but the victim is directed to get the SANE examination done before he conducts his full interview. Piskor said he or another investigator will try to recover as much as possible from the scene including bedding, clothing or anything that could link the suspect to the victim.
Piskor said law enforcement has had meetings with the officials at Munson Healthcare Cadillac Hospital expressing concerns about not having a trained SANE nurse or nurses. There have been trained professionals locally, but it has been 3-5 years.
“In a perfect world, every emergency room nurse would be SANE trained. By not having a SANE nurse locally it creates a difficult situation to have the best investigative efforts we can,‘ he said. “We don’t have medical staff that is trained to collect the evidence necessary to prove or disprove a criminal case.‘
Munson Healthcare Vice President of Marketing and Corporate Communications Dianne Michalek said there are only 78 SANE nurses in Michigan and four are located in Traverse City. Currently, however, Michalek said there are no SANE nurses in Cadillac.
While there are ongoing talks about nurses’ interest in pursuing SANE training, Michalek said there are various reasons why it is hard to have them at every facility. This includes the time commitment of the training, the emotional nature of the exams and the issue of a nursing shortage, she said.
“We would love to offer every specialty and specialty education in every one of our hospitals or clinics but the reality of being in a rural environment and recruiting them is just not feasible,‘ she said.
In 2016 and 2017, there were more than 60 criminal sexual assault cases the Wexford County Sheriff’s Office investigated, according to Piskor. The tally also included child abuse cases, as well as cases where the sheriff’s office assisted other departments or agencies outside of the county.
Wexford County Prosecutor Jason Elmore said he believes the lack of a SANE nurse is a big issue.
His office has had cases where victims and police will contact Munson Medical Center in Traverse City and are told there is not a SANE nurse available. Regardless of there being one available, Elmore said one is needed to conduct the exam enclosed in the sexual assault kits.
Without the exam, it makes his job that much harder. He said it would be similar to sending a surgeon into an operating room without all the right tools.
“The burden of proof rests upon the government. We may not be able to meet that burden without the right evidence,‘ he said. “We need to respond to sexual assault and domestic violence like a life is on the line and time is of the essence, because it is. The wounds and scars of sexual assault and domestic violence are not always as visible as a physical injury, but they can last just as long.‘
Cadillac OASIS Family Resource Center Program Director Jesse Guest-Felsk said her agency’s core value is being a client center, whether that is a victim of domestic violence or sexual assault. That also means the hospital, law enforcement, and Oasis need to have open conversations about what can be offered, what can’t be offered and make a plan based on that.
She said communication between all involved parties needs to be key.
“We just value the conversation of what we can do locally. If we can’t offer something then let’s reconcile that and then make a plan,‘ she said. “Oasis just wants to be client-centered and do what we can that is best for the client. We stand behind them and what they desire. We take the lead from them because we are in a supportive role. We are not the police. We are not nurses. We are advocates and counselors.‘