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Forensic Nursing Program helps meet growing need in the Helena community

Posted at 2:54 PM, Jul 05, 2024

HELENA — Helena's Friendship Center says it helped at least 115 victims of sexual violence in the tri-county area in 2023, almost half of which received a forensic exam at a hospital or clinic.

The St. Peter's Health Forensic Nursing Program has specially trained nurses who work closely with the Friendship Center to perform those exams.

The work is difficult, but important, says Forensic Nurse Coordinator Whitney Brothers.

"We know there are victims out there and we want to connect with them, " says Brothers.

Forensic nurses provide specialized care to people who have been sexually abused or assaulted. The work includes collecting evidence that could used to prosecute abusers.

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Brothers told MTN that is just one part of their work helping patients heal. A big focus of care is giving control and a voice back to people who feel it has been taken from them.

"An analogy that I use a lot with victims," says Brothers, "is that this exam is a lot like a road map and there are a lot of different stops we can make on the way. But at the end of the day, you get to decide what stops we make."

The St. Peter's Program is relatively new. The hospital started it in January of 2022 to meet what it saw as a growing need in the community.

Angie Quintero, RN, has been performing forensic nurse care since before the hospital had an official program. She received training through a special course in Great Falls.

Quintero has seen firsthand the need for this care and how the program is reaching more and more people. St. Peter's Health says in the two years since the program launched there has been a more than 60 percent increase in patients who request the program's services.

"it is a traumatic event and one of the hardest days for peoples lives," says Quintero.

Quintero and Brothers both recognize the challenges faced by people who have been victims of crimes. However, they want the community to know that there are trained professionals who are ready to respond, even if it is just to listen.

"Just remember that sometimes being able to just go and make sure your body is ok, just be able to talk to somebody that is there listening- that is there for you and cares can make a big difference," says Quintero.

The work of the Forensic Nursing Program goes beyond the tri-county area. According to St. Peter's, the program has helped patients in Toole, Gallatin and Powell Counties.

Brothers also says she recently worked with the Montana Department of Justice to train around 40 registered nurses around the state to perform this care but acknowledges that it will only meet a fraction of the demand.

"That is just a drop in the bucket," says Brothers, "we talk about that there is a nursing shortage, but there is an even more shortage of forensic nurses."

The Forensic Nurse Program is part of a network of care for victims of sexual violence in the Helena area. St. Peter's Health is a member of the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) and works with groups like the Friendship Center, local clinics, law enforcement agencies, and prosecutors to make sure patients receive care and support after they have left the hospital.

St. Peter's is also working to expand the program. In April the hospital received more than $730,000 in grant funding to support forensic nursing.