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C.A.T.S.: A Safe Haven For Victims Of Sexual Violence

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The names of the victims in this story have been changed to protect their privacy.

Pregnant 21-year-old Susan and her husband were at a gas station when a man stuck a gun to their heads and demanded to be driven to an ATM. Terrified, they complied and withdrew the cash. The man then separated Susan and her husband. He drove her husband to another location, beat and pistol-whipped him. He brutally raped Susan and called two of his friends to do the same. After being violated by three men, Susan and her husband were left to die. Once the police found them, Kathy Adams, a forensic nurse examiner and Clinical Director for The Center for Assault Treatment Services (CATS), performed the forensic examination on Susan.

She did not have to wait in an emergency room for hours; instead, CATS was right on the scene collecting the necessary forensic evidence to put the three men who assaulted her behind bars. CATS treats sexual assault victims of all ages in the San Fernando Valley, Burbank, Glendale and Pasadena -- their area of focus has a population of over two million people. CATS, a nonprofit organization founded in 1997, depends on the donations of individuals and corporations. When a sexual assault occurs in the area, CATS nurses are the first people called by the police. Depending on the victims' injuries, the police either drive the victims to CATS, located in Van Nuys, or to the nearest hospital where CATS nurses will travel to perform the forensic examination.

Currently, there are sevenCATS logo full-time forensic nurses at CATS who give sexual examinations. Forensic nurses are trained to investigate death, psychiatric needs and sexual assault. All of the nurses at CATS have performed over 1,000 examinations. As Adams says, you must really love what you do in order to stay because the work can be very draining.

Fortunately, these seven nurses are passionate about their jobs and care for the victims. Sexual assault is one of the most gruesome crimes; perpetrators target the weak and the assault leaves life-long emotional scars. Children under six make up 60 percent of the victims they serve. They work to get child molesters and assailants off the streets. Through forensic examinations and DNA evidence, CATS has been very successful in helping the district attorney's office get convictions. Funding for their organization is essential -- in order for the forensic nurses to be on call 24/7, to maintain the center and to be able to afford the expensive medical care.

While Adams loves her job, she does acknowledge how emotionally grueling some days can be. Exams can last over three hours, where nurses collect both DNA evidence and interview the victim. Those interviews are the most difficult.

"You can't help feeling for the victims as they relive every detail from their traumatic event," Adams said.

The interviews are essential, though; missing one minor detail could mean freedom for a perpetrator. Adams gave an example of a woman whose rape kit had no DNA evidence, but in the interview the woman disclosed how her assailant had bitten her on the shoulder. Adams was able to collect DNA evidence from the woman's shoulder, which helped convict the perpetrator.

During the hardest days, the nurses have each other for support. They are able to talk with one another and share stories. This is so important because, as Adams says, "you never know when a particular case will hit you the most."

Susan's story will forever stay with Adams. She was so impressed by Susan's courage -- despite everything she had gone through her only concern was for her husband and unborn child. Because of Adams' forensic examination, two of the three men who assaulted Susan and her husband are now in prison.

Another case that haunts Adams is of 8-year-old Danielle. Her family had fallen on hard times, and for over a year she had been living with her family at a fellow church member's home. The owner of the home molested Danielle on a regular basis. The man had Danielle convinced he loved her and was going to marry her someday (for children who fall prey to sexual assault, the perpetrator is almost always someone they know and usually someone who lives in their home). He would give the family more money based upon what Danielle would do for him sexually. Once her parents discovered what was going on, they took Danielle to the police and the police took Danielle to CATS. With Adams' forensic examination, the perpetrator received 20 years in prison.

Even though many of these victims will forever impact her life, Adams and the rest of the nurses are only permitted to see the victims once or twice. This is because the nurses at CATS must remain completely impartial in order to testify in court.

Upon treating a young client, CATS always calls an advocate for counseling, support and legal help. As Adams points out, the child is often not the only victim in the case.

"When the victim is a young child like a three-year-old, most of the time the caregiver is the one who needs the counseling. The three-year-old doesn't even know what's wrong. The child's oblivious, but the mom has fallen apart. She's the one in crisis." In these situations family counseling is offered and recommended, she said.

Kathy Adams at CATS

Kathy Adams giving a tour of C.A.T.S. to L.A County District Attorney Steve Cooley and two deputy district attorneys.

Adams finds her job incredibly fulfilling and sees forensic nursing as the most rewarding type of nursing. She enjoys the team approach in solving these crimes; the nurses, detectives, advocates, district attorney and the crime lab all work together. Adams claims that the team's first step is to care for the victims and the second step is to get the perpetrator off the streets. The DNA database makes the job easier because of how vast it has become. Recently, Adams got a DNA hit from a perpetrator she dealt with 10 years earlier.

How can you help CATS? Confidentiality is essential to CATS' victims and the investigations are very stringent, so Adams says, "The best way people can help is by participating in our fundraising events...so that we have the funds to continue doing the work." On Sunday, April 11, CATS will be holding its 8th annual Victory for Victims 10k River Run at Lake Balboa Park in Encino, Calif.

•Learn more about the event at www.abuse-assaultservices.org.
•Organize a team of coworkers to run/walk at this event and ask family members to sponsor you.

Where will your money go? Directly to the victims:

•$100 provides one counseling session for a victim.
•$200 provides one follow-up medical exam.
•$400 provides one forensic interview.
•$750 provides for one forensic sexual assault examination and evidence collection.

The medical services CATS provides are expensive and CATS does not receive reimbursements for the costs of seeing child victims referred by the Department of Children and Family Services. Additional funds could reimburse CATS for their hard work. Also, additional funds would allow CATS to hire secretarial help and nurse examiners to increase the capacity of services provided to their youngest victims. Another way to help is to report sexual violence in your community. If you know anyone who is being abused or witness a crime, please contact the authorities. You will help put a perpetrator behind bars -- so no other innocent person gets hurt.