A Voice for Victims

When Larisa Barnes, R.N., BSN, CEN, gets home from work, she’s greeted by “Jersey”, a Labrador retriever named for Barnes’ home state. It’s just the lighthearted welcome she needs after a day spent working with traumatized people. As coordinator for the Southeast Georgia Health System Sexual Assault Nurse Educator (SANE) program, Barnes cares for adolescent and adult victims of sexual assault. Barnes and her team of four SANE nurses are trained to collect DNA samples, record testimony and help victims process their emotional pain. “We’ve got their back from the moment they walk into the Emergency Care Center. We spend six to eight hours with each person, helping them turn the corner from victim to survivor.”

She launched the program in January 2019, with support from Health System President and CEO Michael D. Scherneck, and Glenn Gann, R.N., MSN, director, Emergency Care Center, Brunswick Campus. “Together, we wanted to support Safe Harbor Children’s Center and bring SANE to our communities,” Barnes says.

SANE serves male and female patients at the Brunswick and Camden Campus Emergency Care Centers (ECC). Patients may also be referred by an Immediate Care Center or their doctor. The SANE team partners with a victim’s advocate from Safe Harbor, who connects victims with counselors and accompanies them to court, if the crime is prosecuted.

Helping victims is especially challenging if the abuser accompanies them to the ECC. “SANE nurses are sensitive to the fact that the abuser could be with the victim. We recognize the signs of domestic violence or human trafficking and find a private, discreet way to give victims the information they need without endangering them,” explains Barnes.

Situations like the coronavirus, when victims are cooped up with their abusers, makes a bad situation worse. “Unfortunately, we’ve seen an increase in cases the past couple months.”

SANE nurses must not only be compassionate and empathetic, they are trained in forensic nursing which allows them to accurately document crimes and convey information to law enforcement. “Listening to a victim’s story guides a head-to-toe exam and allows us to document injuries. Our documentation has a better chance of standing up in court than records from nurses not trained in SANE methods. We’re also trained to understand the neurobiology of trauma. Memory can be inconsistent in trauma victims. They don’t always fully recall the sequence or certain details of the event. A lot of non-medical people don’t understand that.”

Another important job requirement is the ability to set aside prejudices. “You can’t go in with a bias and judge the victim based on what she was wearing when the crime occurred or if she was intoxicated. It takes tremendous bravery to report an assault. I want to be a voice for victims.”

A Grandmother’s Example
Larisa Barnes knew she was destined to become a nurse. “My grandmother was a nurse and from third grade on, that’s what I decided to do. I’ve never wavered from that decision.” She earned her nursing diploma from Ann May School of Nursing in New Jersey, before pursuing her Bachelor of Science degree in nursing from Chamberlin College of Nursing. Barnes then became nationally certified as an emergency nurse, a career she pursued for 26 years before becoming a SANE coordinator. “My SANE duties come first, from working with victims to testifying in court, attending a meeting or providing education. I still miss working as a regular ER nurse, though, so I fill in occasionally.”

The SANE Difference
Forensic nursing is an advanced, specialized career path and, as such, there’s a shortage of SANE-trained nurses, but also an opportunity. “There are educational grants available to help nurses pay for the training,” Barnes says.

During her emergency room nursing days, Barnes didn’t always feel she made a difference. She would counsel patients on how to lower their blood pressure or reduce weight, and see the same patients return again and again because they hadn’t heeded instructions. That’s why she decided to pursue SANE training. “I love knowing I make a difference.” A recent encounter brought this point home again. “The patient hugged me and thanked me for being there for her and said I did a great job.”

Barnes faces difficult realities daily, but is heartened by the support of the Health System and the community. “My boss is very supportive. There’s a sense of community and a feeling of belonging here. It’s nice to recognize people when I’m out in the community and see them doing well.”

Speak Up to Prevent Crimes
As Barnes contemplates her work, she wishes there was less “victim blaming” in society and that more people, especially men, would step forward when the situation calls for it. “If you see a girl at a party who is drunk, protect her. If someone slips something into a woman’s drink, don’t let it pass. If you see something, say something!”

Barnes draws comfort knowing that she’s speaking up for people at their most vulnerable. At the end of a long day, she gains support from her boyfriend, a former medic and current law enforcement officer who understands the nature of her work. That, and a friendly nudge from her friend Jersey, help keep things in perspective.

If you are a nurse interested in SANE training, call 912-466-2246.

Where to Find Help
Connie Smith Rape Crisis Center 24/7 hotline: 800-205-7037.

Safe Harbor Children’s Center for abused and neglected children: 912-289-9940 or text 44357 if you are in danger.

House of Hope for minor girls who are victims of human trafficking can be reached through the Georgia Cares Hotline: 844-842-3678.