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EDINBURG, RGV – Victims of sexual assault in the United States often have difficulty seeking medical aid.

To help such victims in the Rio Grande Valley community, two nurses at Doctor’s Hospital at Renaissance have created a new forensic exam center, known as Safe H.A.V.E.N. (Helping All Violent Encounters Now).

Evonne Garcia

“With recent events, it has become necessary for us to be able to provide a safe haven for those members of the community who might be victims of abuse or violence, and that abuse and violence doesn’t know an age, whether you are a child, or whether you are elderly,” said Dr. Carlos Cardenas, DHR’s board chairman.

Cardenas said DHR has “made it a priority” to provide discreet, compassionate health services for sexual assault and abuse victims.

“The Forensic Exam Unit at DHR will provide a safe, private area that is equipped with specialized evidence collection equipment. Specially trained nurses will assist with evidence collection from victims of sexual assault, elder abuse, domestic violence, trauma and suspicious deaths,” Cardenas said.

“Along with the compassionate health care services offered in the unit, the nurses will also provide education for law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, schools and advocacy groups. It is our goal to increase awareness about the signs of crime among healthcare professionals and the community at large.”

Hospital officials and advocates for victims met at the Edinburg Conference Center on Feb. 3 to announce the formation of Safe H.A.V.E.N.  Members at the assembly included Edinburg Mayor Richard Garcia, McAllen Mayor Jim Darling, Governor Greg Abbott’s regional liaison Leticia Flores, Pharr City Commissioner Ricardo Medina, and police officers from Pharr, Mission, Edinburg, and McAllen.

Evonne Garcia and Sally Peña are the forensic nurses whose idea it was to set up Safe H.A.V.E.N. Garcia said the project stemmed from a lack of immediate help and a denial of services to sexual assault victims in the previous clinic she was employed at. She said the haven was necessary because of the prevalence of the issue in the Valley.

“When I first created it, I worked in the emergency room, and I used to see that victims would get turned away or they wouldn’t get taken care of quickly, and of course these are time-sensitive cases,” Garcia said.

Safe H.AV.E.N. will provide 24/7 access to victims of sexual abuse, domestic violence, and will expand services to child, elderly and ‘suspicious death cases.’ Additionally, the center will procure safety by locking the facility at all time. Staff will work closely with law enforcement to escort patients if needed.

“It [sexual abuse] doesn’t have an age, it is an issue for the community that unfortunately is probably not going to go away anytime soon,” said DHR’s Chief Medical Officer Robert Martinez

“The good news is that we are going to be able to provide those victims with an opportunity to make sure that they are able to see justice done, and that they are able to go somewhere where they feel safe and are able to receive an exam so that they may be able to have closure with their particular instance.”

In addition to examination services, patients will be able to access information about legal and medical options. There will also be referrals for follow-up care in counseling and medical treatment.

“A lot of this that happens is not only physical, its mental, and those require long-term treatment plans, and so we plan to focus on those long-term treatment plans and continue working with those patients in our system by delivering the health that they need across all spectrums of specialties, as long as they need,” Martinez said.

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian, Martinez said better education in schools and the community can create awareness of the services available and help reduce the occurrence of these crimes.

“I was stressing to some of the mayors that we should go into some of the schools and educate some the kids because a lot of these people don’t know, and the more they know the more that they are to come forward,” Martinez said.

He added that although Safe H.A.V.E.N. does not have an opening date yet, the hospital currently takes patients who may experience violence.

“While we are able to provide that service right now, the full build out as we anticipate it will take a few days, but if they come in we have protocol where the patient is safe and secure, so that in case that happens we will be able to handle them right away,” Martinez said.