Forum focuses on sex assault


April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and officials who gathered at a forum at The Wellspring on Thursday described the problem as an “epidemic” in the region.

Among the attendees to Thursday’s forum were 4th District Attorney Jerry Jones; assistant district attorneys Cindy Lavesphere and Josephine Heller; Caroline Cascio, director of the counseling and family development center at The Wellspring; sexual assault therapist Melanie Clark; The Wellspring CEO Judy Bell; Ouachita Parish Coroner Dr. Teri O’Neal; and Jonathan Phillips, LSU Health Sciences Center assistant director of nursing.

Bell said the assembled group were on the front lines of addressing sexual assault in the region.

“We want to increase awareness of this problem in our area,” Bell said. “There have been some tremendous strides made in the past 18 months to address this problem.”

Bell pointed to the establishment of the area’s Sexual Assault Resource Team, a coordinating body made up of representatives of the region’s government, law enforcement, social services, health care and other agencies who address sexual assault in the region.

O’Neal, who supervises the recently re-established Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program, said the problem caused the original incarnation of the program to be overwhelmed.

“We had so many cases and so few nurses available, it had to be shut down,” O’Neal said. “We did 180 cases in 2007, and those are just the ones that were reported.”

O’Neal said the SANE nurses have worked on 33 cases since last August, when the program was restarted.

“The data suggest we are just above the national average in sexual assault incidents in our area,” O’Neal said. “And it’s still under-reported.”

Jones echoed O’Neal’s comment that the problem was similar to a disease.

“It’s a condition of the mind that never improves,” Jones said. “Doesn’t matter what age they may be. A 90-year-old pedophile is still a pedophile.”

The forum was followed by the presentation of the Dr. Kathy Coffman Medical Services Award of Excellence to O’Neal and a few SANE nurses.

Created by the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault, the award goes to individuals, teams, or institutions in the medical field who have demonstrated “outstanding support of victims’ rights and willingness to educate self and colleagues about sexual assault,” said Sarah Johnson, marketing director for The Wellspring.

Johnson said they were nominated by The Wellspring for their efforts in revitalizing the SANE and SART programs in the parish.

“They took the lead in the collaboration efforts with Forensic Nurses of LA based in Shreveport,” Johnson said. “And they also took the lead in creating the memorandums of understanding with the local hospitals and for creating a SANE budget within the coroner and Police Jury budget to cover the costs of the forensic exams that are not to be billed to victims of sexual assault.”