By Adam Lamberti
A new forensics center will soon open in Rockbridge County, providing victims of rape and sexual abuse quicker access to support and tests to collect evidence against the assailant.
The Augusta Health Forensic Nursing Center in Partnership with Project Horizon will open by the end of the year according to Judy Casteele, the executive director of Project Horizon. The local non-profit is committed to stopping domestic and sexual violence in Rockbridge County.
In the past, victims would need to drive about 40 minutes north to Fishersville or an hour south to Roanoke to visit a forensics center. The new Rockbridge center will have a 24-7 hotline reachable via Project Horizon’s office at 540-463-2594. Officials did not disclose the address of the new center for safety reasons.
New center makes difficult situation simpler
Renee Pullen, a forensic nurse coordinator at Augusta Health, said that the center will first check to see if a person’s injuries require a hospital visit.
“There will be some screening questions to make sure that they don’t have an immediate medical need, like if they need X-rays or stitches,” Pullen said.
At the center, the forensic nurse will do a physical exam and offer preventative care for sexually-transmitted diseases or pregnancies.
The service is free and confidential. Clients are not required to report the attack to the police.
Casteele believes the new center will increase the number of reported sexual assaults in Rockbridge.
“There seems to be a lot of people not wanting to go outside of the area to get services,” Casteele said. “So, we’re able to say, ‘look, you know, you can go right here in Rockbridge, you don’t have to leave your home.’”
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, forensic exams and evidence collection kits increase the likelihood of identifying and convicting the attacker if the victim decides to press charges.
The opening of the center will also save time for police officers, who formerly had to collect the evidence from the forensics centers in Fishersville or Roanoke.
“If you have somebody from Rockbridge County who has [that job], you can sit around and wait to be done, which could take one to six hours,” Casteele said. “It ties up what few law enforcement we have on duty at the time.”
As was the case in Rockbridge, many local hospitals in rural areas of Virginia cannot afford to have a forensics center.
Kristi VanAudenhove, executive director at Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance, says that Casteele’s idea to create a satellite forensics center in partnership with a local hospital could become the blueprint for other areas to replicate.
“We’ve got a good model for how the partnership happened,” VanAudenhove said. “And as they begin to get a sense of the efficacy of what they’re doing, that will give us the ability then to turn to other communities and say, ‘look, here’s a model.’”