Giving Thought: A safe and SANE place for our youth at River Bridge

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought

An important regional program that supports sexual-assault victims has been restored after a three-and-a-half-year absence.

Blythe Chapman, executive director of River Bridge Regional Center in Glenwood Springs, has announced that River Bridge has taken the reins of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program, which enables any adult sexual-assault victim to receive an exam for both medical and evidentiary purposes.

Aspen Community Foundation: Please describe the SANE program and why it’s important.

Blythe Chapman: There are SANE programs throughout the country. We had a very well-run SANE program at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs up until 2012, when it was discontinued mostly for financial reasons. This left our entire 9th Judicial District (Garfield, Pitkin and Rio Blanco counties) without a SANE program. That meant victims of sexual assault, both adults and adolescents, when reporting sexual assault and needing a medical exam, had to travel to either Grand Junction or Frisco to get that exam.

We know a lot of adults were choosing not to get exams because of that travel hardship. If a victim doesn’t get the exam, it could mean they don’t get good medical care, which could lead to medical issues later. In addition, if a victim doesn’t have evidence collected through a medical exam, then it’s almost impossible for law enforcement to go forward with a case. So a lot of sexual-assault cases probably weren’t getting prosecuted.

The District Attorney’s Office reinvigorated SANE in early 2016, under then-DA Sherry Caloia. Throughout 2017, our new DA, Jeff Cheney, supported the program but didn’t want the DA’s Office running it. So now River Bridge is taking over the program in order to sustain it long term.

ACF: Who will the program serve?

BC: The SANE program is for adults, technically age 13 and up. That minimum age is part of the reason it was a good fit for us. River Bridge exists to help children who are victims of sexual abuse, and so we already serve that 13- to 18-year-old population. Now, by taking on this program for adults — medical exams only — we’ll serve adults as well as minors.

I want to be clear that we’re still a child advocacy center and we generally don’t serve adults. In Garfield and Pitkin counties, the sexual-assault organizations are Advocate Safehouse Project and Response. But because River Bridge does provide medicals for our adolescent population, there is some overlap for us. It makes sense for us to provide administration and oversight for those SANE nurses.

ACF: On a related subject, River Bridge is celebrating a milestone, correct?

BC: Yes, we opened officially in December 2007, so it was our 10-year anniversary in December. We’ve grown tremendously during those years. When we opened in 2007, there was a director and a victim advocate, and those two people were actually employed by a national nonprofit called Childhelp.

In 2012 we broke away from Childhelp and became an independent nonprofit. There were some fits and starts, but we did it with the help of the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.

In 2008, our first full year of operation, we saw 80 kids. In 2017 we saw 223. As our community and our partner agencies — law enforcement and child welfare — have learned about us, the more people they’ve referred to us.

The other major change is this: When we first opened, we only served Garfield County. Now we serve four counties — Garfield, Eagle, Pitkin and Rio Blanco. We offer them a new way of doing things.

The old way of investigating one of these cases would involve a kid talking to law enforcement, then child welfare, and eventually the DA’s Office if it got to the point of prosecution. The abused child would go from place to place and tell the story over and over again. We know now that method didn’t work and caused more trauma for the kids.

The new way is more child-friendly. It’s a one-stop approach, meaning that all of those agencies come to River Bridge, listen to the child’s interview and get their questions answered. A specialized forensic interviewer, whose job is talking to kids, does the interview in a warm and welcoming room with the child.

ACF: What does the addition of the SANE program mean for your budget?

BC: We don’t know how many more individuals we’ll see. Right now we’re seeing one or two SANE clients per month, but I expect that to increase throughout this year. We’ve budgeted about $50,000 for 2018 for the SANE program, and that includes a two-year grant from the Aspen Community Foundation. We may have to increase that budget as we bring on more nurses and serve more clients.

Tamara Tormohlen is executive director of the Aspen Community Foundation.