Ohio’s second-largest city has become a national leader in responding to rape cases and dealing compassionately with victims.
By Christopher Johnston, Contributor | Cover Story | FEBRUARY 21, 2016
CLEVELAND — Registered nurse Elizabeth Boothis was haunted by one rape victim: petite, late 20s, clad in jeans and a sweatshirt. Sitting alone, crying, nose running, with a hollow look on her face as she twirled the long blond hair coursing down her back, while waiting in the perpetually frenetic emergency room of MetroHealth Medical Center on Cleveland’s Near West Side.
Ms. Booth had just recently been hired. She watched from behind the nurses station as the young woman returned to be examined again and again. Each time, the charge nurse explained that she would have to wait. More severely injured patients were ahead of her.
In Cleveland’s only Level 1 trauma center, ER triage basically went like this: Life threatening. Everything else. Unless a rape victim had sustained injuries requiring emergency treatment, the person had to be, well, patient.
Growing increasingly agitated, the young woman began pacing the hallway, cursing under her breath. Finally, after five or six hours of stomping and fuming, she screamed, “Give me a break!” and stormed out of the ER.
That was in 2008, and it wasn’t the last time Booth would become upset by the look of hopelessness in the eyes of a rape victim forced to endure the humiliating experience of feeling as if no one cared.
In fact, Booth still shudders at how victims who chose to wait were finally treated. Since none of the hospital staff were trained in how to provide a thorough medical and forensic rape examination, someone would crack open a manual and read the directions for the procedure.
“There was no other area of medicine where that would be acceptable,” she says. “It just got to me, so I thought, ‘All right, I’ll do the training myself and see where it goes.’ ”
Just eight years later, the indefatigable Booth is the hospital’s sexual assault nurse examiner coordinator, working specifically with rape victims. She has trained 30 other nurses at Metro to become certified SANEs. The hospital is now a national training center for this growing specialty area of forensic nursing.
Booth’s pioneering efforts symbolize how Cleveland has become a national leader in new approaches to handling rape and sexual assault. Across the country, a growing number of cities are shifting their perceptions of sexual violence – taking more seriously crimes that many advocates have long thought were overlooked by police, prosecutors, and health-care professionals.
But few have pushed as far as Cleveland. Since 2009, the city has significantly accelerated its efforts to combine more-
aggressive methods to take sexual offenders off the streets with more compassionate ways to help survivors reclaim their lives.
The revamped mind-set has already achieved tangible results. A county task force investigating a backlog of more than 4,800 sexual assault cases has tallied a conviction rate of 90 percent, with 120 defendants sentenced so far. Authorities estimate they will hand down more than 1,000 indictments as they complete the project over the next few years.