SANE Director receives the 2012 Visionary Voice Award

Click here to learn more about the Visionary Voice Award

Congratulations to Heather Gunnell, the 2012 recipient of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) Visionary Voice Award. The NSVRC Visionary Voice Award is scheduled to be presented to Heather at the Victim’s Rights Day press conference in Concord on April 24. The award is meant to honor the creativity and hard work of one individual per state who has demonstrated outstanding advocacy and community work to end or prevent sexual violence.

Heather is the Director for the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program, which is housed by the Coalition. The SANE program recognizes sexual assault as a healthcare issue and provides medical professionals with the tools necessary to understand the dynamics of sexual violence, and to provide a high standard of medical care to victims of sexual assault.  In her role she is responsible for the promotion and coordination of the SANE program in order to provide the best standard of care to sexual assault patients.

Heather has taken this issue to heart working tirelessly to drive home the point that sexual assault and domestic violence are public health issues. She has worked with the medical community to improve the knowledge of service providers, which in turn has resulted in better services for survivors. Heather works to emphasize that the role of a SANE nurse is not just to perform a rape kit; rather it is to provide medically necessary care and support to survivors of sexual assault.

Since coming to the Coalition in 2008, Heather has improved the climate for sexual assault survivors by bringing the different disciplines that come in contact with survivors closer together. Under Heather’s leadership she has created more of a community of SANE nurses in New Hampshire who have not only helped recruit more nurses into the program but have also taken on leadership roles in their own communities. There are currently over 50 actively practicing New Hampshire SANE nurses, and there are approximately 20 new nurses trained a year.

At the local level SANEs have become an integral part in the community team that works with survivors; this is due in large part to Heather’s efforts. She opened up the SANE trainings to allow local advocates, law enforcement and prosecutors to take part, giving them a new perspective on what victims experience during their hospital visit. She has encouraged SANE nurses to take part in their local Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART), putting them directly in contact with advocates, law enforcement and prosecutors in their area.

While the main focus of the initial SANE training is on the medical care and forensic evidence collection for sexual assault victims, Heather expanded the program to include continuing education opportunities on subjects like domestic violence, elder abuse, working with our youngest victims, and those who are mentally incapacitated. In addition she started the experiential testimony training facilitated by a County Attorney and two prosecutors who act out a mock trial. The nurses prepare and testify as if it were a real case. All of Heather’s efforts have led to an improved retention rate for SANE nurses.

Heather was part of a team in the state working on improving responses for victims in the prison system. She worked with the department of corrections as it developed an internal policy, ensuring there was a medical focus in the discussion. Through that project she was part of multiple trainings for advocates which included information on the culture behind the wall, and how different it can be to interact with these survivors.

Heather sits on various committees of the Governor’s Commission on domestic and sexual violence including the research committee which released the 2011 report, the Reality of Sexual Assault in New Hampshire. Heather was the lead author of this report exploring how the criminal justice system responds to adult female victims of sexual assault and some of the reasons why these cases do not get prosecuted. This report gathered a great deal of attention in New Hampshire and nationally. Heather will be presenting on this report at the national sexual assault conference this summer, and the International Association of Forensic Nurses Scientific Assembly this fall.

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