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County Reopens Sexual Assault Examiner Program

Program closed in 2017 after difficulty recruiting and retaining staff

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Forensic Services Director Lauren Zephro talks about the newly reopened county sexual assault examiner program. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

Santa Cruz County now has another tool to help survivors of sexual assault.

The Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) program, a team of nurses trained to recognize, document and collect evidence from patients, resumed operations at Dominican Hospital on Aug. 24 after a three-year hiatus, Santa Cruz County Sheriff Forensic Services Director Lauren Zephro said.

The SAFE satellite location in Santa Cruz County will have trained medical professionals on-call 24 hours a day for sexual assault medical examinations for survivors from ages 12 and up.

The SAFE program is run by the County’s Sexual Assault Response Team (SART). The local program was closed in 2017 because of the difficulty of recruiting and retaining staff, Zephro said.

That meant a trip to Santa Clara County Medical Center (SCVMC) for victims already traumatized, said Monarch Services Communication Director Delphine Burns. Watsonville-based Monarch runs the county’s Rape Crisis Center.

Burns says that reporting a sexual assault can be an arduous process, made worse by a long drive to a remote clinic.

“There usually is an expression of frustration and sadness and trauma from a survivor making that transition,” Burns said. “Once that decision is made, to be told, ‘You’re doing this hard thing; you’ve made this hard decision,’ that there is another barrier in the way to you getting justice—sometimes that can discourage individuals from wanting to report.”

Zephro said that the Sheriff’s Office, the Health Services Agency, Dominican Hospital, Monarch Services and SCVMC have been working to rebuild the program since 2017.

“We knew that we needed to have a solution here in Santa Cruz,” she said. “It’s been a long three years.” 

Survivors of sexual assault seeking SAFE examinations may choose between two types of examinations: an investigative or non-investigative exam. If a survivor chooses an investigative examination, law enforcement will conduct a criminal investigation and will be provided with evidence collected during the exam. Alternatively, in a non-investigative exam, evidence is still collected, but law enforcement will not start a criminal investigation until the survivor chooses to do so.

The evidence obtained during a non-investigative exam is confidential and will be preserved and stored indefinitely. 

SAFE exams are provided at no cost to the survivor. 

Every survivor seeking a SAFE exam is entitled to a Monarch Services advocate. 

If you or someone you know needs a SAFE exam, call 911 or Monarch Services’ 24-hour confidential, bilingual crisis line at 888-900-4232.

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