By Phil Demers, Berkshire Eagle staff
PITTSFIELD — Drugs, poverty and homelessness all contribute to a higher incidence of domestic abuse and sexual assault in Berkshire County, per capita, than in much of the rest of Massachusetts, according to Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito.
To help turn that around, Berkshire Medical Center soon will become part of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program, a new initiative launched by the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker.
“Victims can go to this hospital and get the right response that he or she needs,” Polito said Thursday during a visit to the Elizabeth Freeman Center, which provides services to victims of domestic violence. “These examiners then document the medical evidence needed so when the batterer or abuser is prosecuted, the [district attorney] and his team have the evidence and a witness to come forward.”
She added, “It’s a tool that many people in this county can use to break that cycle of violence.”
The SANE designation will greatly enhance collaboration between hospital and Elizabeth Freeman Center staff. When a victim enters the hospital, nursing staff will summon center staffers as part of standard protocol.
Additionally, nurses will be provided with — many already have — more robust training on how to best deal with victims seeking help after these traumatic events.
Freeman Center Executive Director Janis Broderick said her staffers are highly trained but rarely get called to the hospital when victims come in. The new program represents an unprecedented level of collaboration between the hospital and domestic assault/sexual violence workers.
“It’s been shown that if you can have a rape crisis counselor there right at the moment, it makes a big difference,” Broderick said. “We can offer immediate support. Obviously, this is going to increase the number of calls we’re getting, and we’re glad.”
She added, “We’re thrilled. This is a huge step.”
The rate of restraining orders given out in the Berkshires meaningfully exceeds the statewide figure, an indication that relationships here are more likely to become abusive, advocates say. Episodes of abuse can derail victims’ lives, through loss of employment and economic insecurity or subsequent substance abuse.
In 2014, The Freeman Center served 3,034 individual survivors of abuse, people from every corner of the Berkshires, all 32 cities and towns. More than half of these, 1,641, were residents of Pittsfield. The total figure was down slightly from 3,107 in 2013.
“When the lieutenant governor first saw those numbers — those very stunning numbers — from right here, she knew they were making the right decision,” said state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, “We have some super-good news here today. There’s another tool in the toolbox. But we have a real issue, and it impacts every single one of us. We have to continue working on this.”
District Attorney David Capeless, who attended Polito’s announcement at the Freeman Center, said he has advocated for such a program for 20 years.
“We need people who are specially trained working with these victims so they can later testify in the courtroom,” Capeless said. “I’m glad this program will be bringing us people prepared to do that.”
Polito said she’d observed a high level of collaboration between Berkshire organizations and was happy to announce news that it would soon increase.
“This room is filled with people who care an awful lot about their neighbors,” Polito said at Thursday’s event. “You come with a tremendous amount of dedication and experience. This collaboration will unite the Berkshires in keeping people safe, making them well and getting them on a path to a successful and good life.”