By Myra Saturen
November 09, 2012
On a July 16, 2011, at 7:30 in the evening, Eleanor Levie was in her kitchen washing out a gardening pail when someone crept up from behind her and choked her unconscious. The assault left her with a broken larynx and resulted in three days in intensive care. Fortuitously for potential future victims, Levie had had the presence of mind to scratch the man's arm so as to preserve evidence of his DNA. She also called 911, and paramedics arrived. But instead of taking her to the hospital she requested, they brought her to another facility instead. There, she found no forensic or psychological support, although administrative and medical staff showed cordiality.
To Levie's dismay, her neighbors discovered that five attacks had occurred previously in her Center City, Philadelphia, neighborhood-- all following the same pattern of stealth, attack and robbery. To add to the shock, the residents only learned about these crimes after the assault on Levie. When one of these residents alerted the news media, the Philadelphia Inquirer dubbed the assailant the Society Hill Strangler.
Levie told her story in Bethlehem on November 9 as part of a full-day continuing education seminar offered by the Center for Healthcare Education at Northampton Community College for nurses and first responders.
Her narrative had a point: although she is grateful for the exceptional work and commitment of the police, the district attorney and the judge in her case, her experience left urgent and angry questions in her mind. Why were neighborhoods residents left ignorant of the crime spree? Why did the hospital emergency room lack victim advocates or social workers? Why did she have to plead for collection of the DNA that she had extracted from her assailant?
To remedy such shortcomings for present and future victims, Levie speaks out about evidence collection, treatment of victims, respect for the choices of victims, and transparency in reporting crimes. Her advocacy proved health and life-saving for other women; she is the last of the Society Hill Strangler's victims. Weeks after the assault, the perpetrator came under arrest. Confronted with evidence collected by Levie, he pled guilty and received a sentence of 40-50 years.
Nichole Wagner, a sexual assault nurse examiner at St. Luke's University Health Network, described the SANE program, in which victims of sex crimes are treated and evidence is collected. She clarified that rape and sexual assault victims include males and females across the age range and that these crimes can occur anyplace and at any time. One-quarter of all girls and one-sixth of all boys become victims of rape and/or sexual assault before they reach 18. Eight out of ten victims know their attacker. Under legislation enacted under President Clinton the definition of rape also includes forced intimacy inflicted by spouses.
Sex crimes impose physical and emotional trauma on their victims, and the mission of SANE is to treat each patient with dignity, perform the best evidence collection for later prosecution and promote community involvement for healing and education. SANE provides victims with information and choices so that she or he can make an informed decisions, and offers prophylactic treatment to prevent sexually transmitted disease and pregnancy. Forensic nurses also collect physical evidence and document events and refer patients for follow-up supportive care by community agencies.
Andrew Kehm, detective/sergeant with the City of Bethlehem Police Department, made the link between criminal justice and forensic nursing. "Forensic nurses are the liaisons between the medical and criminal justice systems," he said. He defined forensic nurses as seen from the criminal justice point of view: as nurses with specialized training in forensic evidence collection, knowledge about criminal prosecution and the ability to present legal testimony. They interview victims and witnesses and collect items found at the scene for subsequent analysis and presentation at trial. Avoiding cross-contamination (paper bags are much better receptacles than plastic ones because of plastic's attraction of bacteria), an eagle eye for even the most innocuous-looking pieces of potential evidence and imagination about what object was handled and in what way, are keys to effective collection. Gathering evidence also includes initial observation of a victim, recording oral statements and taking photographs without extraneous elements.
Kehm took seminar participants on a tour of NCC's forensic training center, where they saw laboratories and a simulated crime scene apartment strewn with "clues."
Also presenting at the conference were Wendy Brantley, BSCJ (Bachelor of Science, Criminal Justice), deputy coroner; Marsha Evans, MSW; case worker with child protective services; and Judge Paula A. Roscioli, judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Northampton County. A panel discussion followed the presentations. The seminar was sponsored by the Center for Business and Industry at NCC.
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