Forensic nurse examiners see fewer patients

CHEYENNE — During the COVID-19 pandemic, forensic nurse examiners have been up and running at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center. But even though they’re still there, they’ve been seeing fewer victims of domestic violence, citing less people coming in over fears of the virus.

For victims trying to get their case prosecuted, delaying a forensic examination can have detrimental repercussions to their case and documenting their abuse. As stay-at-home orders are lifted, people are starting to feel safer to come out and report their abuse now that they aren’t stuck at home with the abuser, said Leslie Hansen, manager of the CRMC forensic nurse examiner team.

Hansen said officers who responded to domestic violence incidents reported that victims would decline an examination because they didn’t want to go to the hospital due to COVID-19. The number of patients the team saw dropped from about 40 per month to only 16 in April.

Those patients are a combination of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault patients. In May, when things started to open back up, the team saw about 31 patients.

“I think those, the numbers that we’re seeing, are dropped because of the virus. Not because it’s not happening more – I think it is happening more. We’re just not seeing the patient,” Hansen said.

Even though a victim might be afraid to come into the hospital, there is a very limited risk of COVID-19 exposure. The forensic nurse examiners’ rooms are separate from the emergency room. The rooms are also cleaned thoroughly before and after each patient because there can’t be any DNA contamination. The nurses, as well as the patient, are also wearing masks during the exam.

Hansen recalled one patient that declined to come in at the time of their assault, but came in a few days later. That person told Hansen they didn’t come in earlier because of the virus.

“It’s very frustrating for us to know that it’s happening, and we’re not able to help the patients document the abuse so that they have what they need to get out of the situation,” Hansen said. “They’re not going to have the evidence that we collect, they’re not going to have the photos that we can collect – so that’s where I really feel frustrated. We’re here, and we’ve been here the whole time, but we’re just not seeing the patients. We’re not able to offer them those services, and help them find other services to get out of the situation.”

In March, there were 121 calls for service for domestic-related incidents followed by 126 in April, 159 in May and 92 in June, said David Inman, public information officer at the Cheyenne Police Department.

Inman said the calls for service are a slight increase from January’s and February’s numbers, but whether or not that’s due to COVID-19 is anyone’s guess. It’s important to note these numbers are just calls for service, and doesn’t necessarily indicate a crime has been committed.

In regard to domestic assault and battery cases that were referred to detectives, there were 41 cases in March, 37 in April, 37 in May and, so far, 12 in June. Inman said these numbers are about average and don’t indicate there’s been an increase.

The Laramie County Sheriff’s Department didn’t return calls or emails asking for their domestic violence numbers.

In April, Hansen said most of the cases she saw were physical assaults in the community, such as stabbings or gunshot wounds.

When someone comes into the hospital for a forensic examination, they enter through the emergency room first and get medically cleared. While they’re in that process, someone from the ER reaches out to a forensic nurse examiner and they go to the ER.

Then the nurse examiner gets consent from the patient and begins their examination, which may include taking photos and potentially collecting DNA evidence.

CRMC Forensic Nurse Examiner Barb Horton said it’s important for people to realize that domestic violence isn’t mandated to be reported in Wyoming. So if someone wants to come in for an examination, it’s their choice whether or not they want to get law enforcement involved.

Overall, the forensic nurse examiners see sexual assault, human trafficking, strangulation, child abuse, domestic violence, elder abuse and vulnerable adult abuse cases.