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Nevada Institute of Forensic Nursing helps rural survivors of sexual assault

A Nevada Institute of Forensic Nursing sign is set next to an RV mobile unit. The side of the unit also has two Start By Believing signs, one in English and one in Spanish.
Ember Braun
KUNR Public Radio
The Nevada Institute of Forensic Nursing’s mobile unit sits in the parking lot of Safe Embrace and the Nevada Coalition to End Domestic and Sexual Violence on April 5, 2024, in Reno, Nev.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. NVIFN helps rural Nevada survivors through their mobile clinic.

Norah Lusk is the co-founder of the organization and a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, or SANE. Lusk and her team provide forensic nursing care and exams for victims of sexual assault. These forensic sexual assault exams are commonly known as rape kits.

Although the NVIFN team has an office in Elko, they also operate out of a mobile unit.

“As things kept rolling, we just saw the need for getting out and getting mobile, that it wasn’t just Elko and our close surrounding areas. It’s Ely, it’s Winnemucca, it’s Lovelock,” Lusk said.

Survivors can call the hotline and the team will drive out to the requested location, typically in a team of three. This usually consists of a SANE, an advocate and a forensic interviewer.

This service is essential, Lusk said, because she has seen survivors who have to drive up to four hours to get to a hospital that can provide these examinations.

“I mean, could you imagine being sexually assaulted and having to get in a car with a police officer and drive four hours just so that you can have someone collect the evidence and go through an entire exam, from head to toe, and then turn around and drive four hours home. That is a lot to ask,” Lusk said.

These examinations generally take two to four hours to complete, said Lusk. They follow up with the patient 24-48 hours later, and reach out with mental health resources.

A Nevada Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit sits on a counter next to protective eye ware, evidence tape, sanitizer wipes and a sharps container.
Ember Braun
KUNR Public Radio
A Nevada Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit sits on the counter in the mobile unit, which can be used when survivors contact the unit for help, on April 5, 2024, in Reno, Nev.

Lusk got the idea for a mobile unit working in the ER department in Elko. The staff in the ER were unsure how to handle or conduct the exams.

“It just really drove home the disparities in lack of care. We weren’t sure what we were supposed to be doing or how to conduct the exams,” Lusk said.

After that, Lusk completed SANE training and got her masters in forensic nursing. Every step of the exam involves communicating the process with the patient, Lusk said.

“Just saying to them, ‘I believe you, I believe this happened, and I’m so sorry that this happened to you. Let’s try to get through this exam. I’m going to tell you everything before I do it. And I’m going to ask your permission,’ ” Lusk said.

It isn’t just the exam that nurses train for. Advocates and even nurses will get subpoenaed in court to testify, in the event that a survivor decides to report the assault.

That is why their mobile unit looks like a regular trailer. This is to ensure safety and privacy for the patient, especially in a small, rural community, Lusk said.

“You see a trailer roll up and you see people walk into it and if it has the name on the outside, everybody knows what they’re doing in that trailer. And now everybody knows what’s happened,” Lusk said.

Lusk’s sister-in-law, Cyndy Milligan-Lusk, is the co-founder and director of forensic interviewing for the team. It’s essential to meet patients wherever they feel most comfortable, she said.

“We’ll meet them wherever they want, you know, sometimes we can meet them in a Walmart parking lot,” she said.

Having a forensic interviewer on hand is a necessity, so that patients can talk through the details of the assault, she said. The team doesn’t pressure patients to report. Instead, they sit with them and talk through the process. They have a video recording system that can be used for testifying in court, if the patient decides to report.

“And that’s huge for our children. Huge for our adults as well. But when a kid has to face his perpetrator, [it’s] super helpful for us to be able to do that for them,” Milligan-Lusk said.

The team started using the mobile unit last fall and the inclement weather has been a problem, Lusk said. Their next goal is to use TeleSANE, which would connect patients online with trained SANEs.

KUNR’s Ember Braun is a student at the Reynolds School of Journalism.

Ember Braun is a student reporter for KUNR. She is studying journalism at the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno with an emphasis in broadcasting and a minor in English literature.