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New equipment helps document assault cases
Susan Sweeney holds a specialized camera as she talks recently about new technology being used in the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners program at Northside Hospital-Forsyth. - photo by Emily Saunders

Northside Hospital-Forsyth has taken a step forward in sexual assault treatment.

The hospital's Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) program acquired in September a camera and software used to document and encrypt evidence found on the bodies of sexual assault victims.

Susan Sweeney, the hospital's SANE coordinator, said the new equipment can detect bruising under the skin's surface, sometimes days before it appears to the naked eye.

"Suppose we have a domestic violence patient come in and she's been choked or grabbed. Sometimes those bruises take a while to show on the surface of the skin," Sweeney said.

"We can apply a filter and pick them up sooner. So if we're looking for a handprint or any of those kinds of things we can see it a little earlier. It doesn't change what's there. It's just that we can pick it up a little earlier."

She said Northside's Forsyth facility is the only hospital in the state with the technology, known as Secure Digital Forensic Imaging.

Northside's SANE program began about a year and a half ago.

"We see about 35 patients a year and we've treated about 60 so far," Sweeney said. "About half of those have been children."

The youngest patient they've treated was 2 and the oldest was 52, she said.

Sweeney said the program is still small, with three nurses who have gone through SANE training. But because of the new software they can consult with programs nationwide. She said in such cases, the patients would not be identified and only the wounds would be shown.

Sweeney said every effort is made to put patients at ease and they are treated with dignity and respect. The SANE examining room is tucked away in a private corner of the hospital and nurses help victims with counseling and legal assistance.

She said the program works closely with the county's Sexual Assault Response Team, which consists of the Forsyth County District Attorney's Office, law enforcement agencies and victim advocates.

Forsyth County Sheriff's Lt. Matt Allen said the SANE program contributes an important part of sexual assault investigations and the new technology only boosts that contribution.

"Any time we have a sexual assault and they're involved, the evidence they provide us is critical to the case many times," he said. "If they can enhance that in any way that would be wonderful."

Sweeney said the SANE program's new digital camera, a Canon 40d, can take raw and jpeg images, has automatic and a manual mode and can be used for crime scene photography.

The camera uses a macro lens and a Ringlight flash encircling the lens, both of which are ideal for close up photography. The camera can also be operated using a foot pedal or remote control.

The software, Sweeney said, enhances the camera's detail capabilities beyond what can be done with just a lens and a flash.

Allen said physical evidence is a high priority in sexual assault cases.

"It's definitely a team approach to getting these cases prosecuted and (SANE is) a critical part," he said. "We definitely could not get that evidence on our own so they're crucial to us."

Sweeney said the program has also partnered with the abuse victim shelter Family Haven, and work with the Forsyth County Children's Advocacy Center and the state Division of Family and Children Services.

Sweeney said unfortunately a lot of victims don't report sexual assault and don't know where to go. She said the closest rape crisis line is in Gainesville and that's why they are partnering with Family Haven.

"So at least somebody has a place to call first to say 'This happened to me. I'm not sure what to do.' And then they can send them out the right way," she said. "If it's domestic violence they can go one way; if it's sexual assault they can come here."

Sweeney said along with Forsyth County and Cumming law enforcement agencies, they have worked with authorities from Alpharetta, Smyrna, Gwinnett, Cobb, White, Lumpkin and Dawson counties.

Sweeney said sexual assault is the most under-reported crime in the country and that the rate of false reports is no higher or lower than any other offense.

"There's a myth out there that it's false reporting and that's just not true," she said.

Sweeney said one of the benefits of having the SANE program at the hospital, instead of as a standalone center, is its close proximity to the emergency room.

"So if we have victims that need treatment acutely we just transition over," she said.

Sweeney said all victims that come through the hospital are treated for sexually transmitted diseases and checked for pregnancy.

"Ideally, we really want people in here within the first 72 hours (of the incident)," she said.

"We really encourage them to work with law enforcement but the thing a lot of women don't know is they don't have to report ... it's our first objective to get them to work with law enforcement."