A local nonprofit is bringing a vital resource to Valencia County for survivors of sexual assault.

Valencia Shelter Services has established a satellite SANE unit at its Los Lunas office in partnership with the Albuquerque SANE Collaborative.

“This is such a tremendous service for our community,” said Sandi Martinez, director of forensic services for Valencia Shelter Services. “We are so proud we can provide this.”

Martinez is a forensic interviewer who leads the forensic interview team for the Child Advocacy Center and now oversees the new SANE satellite unit at VSS.

SANE — a sexual assault nurse examiner ­— has become something of a shorthand term for programs providing medical services to survivors of sexual assault.

A SANE is a registered nurse who has received special training so they can provide comprehensive care to sexual assault victims. In addition they are able to conduct a forensic exam and may provide expert testimony if a case goes to trial.

Martinez said during discussions among the members of the child advocacy center’s multidisciplinary team, the need for SANE services in Valencia County came up.

“It’s been a conversation for a while,” she said. “We need a SANE unit here. Initially, this will be a satellite of the Bernalillo County unit but we will transition in three to four years to make it our own.”

Julia M. Dendinger | News-Bulletin photo
Sandi Martinez, the director of forensic services for Valencia Shelter Services, stands in the waiting room of the nonprofit’s new SANE unit. The program is a satellite unit of the Albuquerque SANE Collaborative and will become self-contained in three to four years.

Connie Monahan is the executive director for the Albuquerque collaborative and has been doing SANE work for 23 years. The service is more than a medical exam, Monohan said.

“It’s referrals and a healing path. The exam itself involves the nurse, the victim and an advocate. It lasts about four hours, but it is very low-key,” she said. “The exam provides injury documentation, evidence collection of things like foreign DNA, medical treatment — specifically for sexually transmitted infections — assessment for risk of pregnancy. It’s one-on-one care.”

In Albuquerque, there are 19 nurses who provide 24/7 coverage for the SANE program, and while there are 11 SANE programs scattered around the state, there’s nothing between Albuquerque and the city of Las Cruces, Monahan said.

“That’s too far to access services. We wanted to partner with someone, and VSS already has a domestic violence program and the child advocacy center. By adding SANE, you almost have complete wrap-around services,” she said.

The Albuquerque SANE program provides services to about 600 patients a year, and Monahan anticipates Valencia County may see 100 in its first year. She hopes the satellite unit will reach other counties, such as Socorro, Torrance and Catron.

“That way victims won’t have to drive so far. If they have to drive far, they won’t come,” she said.

If an adult victim accesses SANE services, law enforcement doesn’t have to be involved, Monahan said.

“Someone can receive services without ever filing a police report,” she said.

However, in the case of child sexual assault, SANE units are mandatory reporters, Monahan said.

“We absolutely have to involve law enforcement. The power of VSS is they have case managers for children,” she said. “The idea is there is a SANE advocate with the child and family through the forensic interview and SANE exam, providing that continuity of service and contact. You have one person — your person.”

The Valencia County SANE satellite unit will be based at the Valencia Shelter Services’ office in Los Lunas, 445 Camino del Rey SW, Suite E.

The unit has four rooms — a waiting room for anyone accompanying the victim, a medical exam room, a nurses room for paperwork and charting and a bathroom with a shower.

“One of the scariest things a rape victim can do is take that first shower. You can’t hear under the water, you’re naked and vulnerable,” Monahan said. “This provides them a safe place.”

While the Albuquerque SANE program is providing the nurses for the satellite unit, VSS will be providing the advocates, both of whom will be available to help victims 24/7.

Whether law enforcement has to be involved, Martinez said the timing of a SANE exam differs between a child and an adult. A SANE exam of a child has to be within 72 hours of contact with the perpetrator, but for adults, it’s five days.

“The difference is the adults get an internal exam, but with children, they don’t do anything internally,” she said. “If it’s been over 72 hours, we’ll do the forensic interview with the child, then we will refer them to Para Los Ninos with University of New Mexico Health.”

Para Los Ninos provides comprehensive evaluation, treatment and follow-up care for children and adolescents who have experienced sexual abuse or assault.

If an adult victim doesn’t receive an exam within the five days, Martinez said they are always welcome to speak with a SANE or VSS advocate.

“We will provide all the services and resources we do to our clients. Advocates can refer them to therapy, or they can get legal advocacy if they need a protection order or immigration services because they are undocumented, which is one of the huge reasons why (victims) don’t tell,” she said. “If they are having medical issues because of the assault, we can refer them to physicians who are good with those types of patients.”

The SANE unit will also provide services for inmates who are victims of sexual assault at both the Valencia County Detention Center and Central New Mexico Correctional Facility, she said.

“They are incarcerated, but still a part of the community, still human,” Martinez said.

Domestic violence exams can also be done by medical staff with the SANE unit.

“When an adult comes in with injuries from a domestic violence incident, the nurses can check them and take pictures for evidence,” she said.

If you need SANE services, call 505-884-SANE (7263). Services are always confidential and free and available 24 hours a day.

If you need services from VSS, call 505-565-3100. The 24-hour hotline for Valencia Shelter Services is 505-864-1383.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.