A silent pandemic: Victims of sexual assault become vulnerable with stay-at-home orders​

Mindi Robles, right, stands with the two other SANE coordinators for Northwestern Medicine. Jaime Psarras, left, Kelly Klein, center, and Robles oversee the specific program for all Northwestern medical facilities in Illinois.

Q&A with sexual assault nurse examiner Mindi Robles

By Sam Dier
Medill Reports

Between strict stay-at-home orders and the uncertainty of the virus, the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic made many reluctant to leave their homes, let alone visit an emergency room riddled with cases. Health care professionals were quick to notice the surge in COVID-19 patients masked the sudden plunge in other emergency room visits, such as sexual assault. According to the Chicago Police Department, from 2020 to 2021, Chicago saw a 28% decrease in reported sexual assault cases, leading people like Mindi Robles, the west region sexual assault nurse examiner coordinator at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, to raise concerns about the safety of her potential patients. 

Knowing very well that most sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, Robles and her team worried that decrease in numbers meant one thing: Victims were being assaulted by those they were quarantining with. 
As pandemic restrictions have eased, the number of sexual assault cases have surpassed prepandemic numbers after the first year of COVID-19. Robles spoke about her experience on the frontlines during the pandemic, the many resources available for survivors of assault and what the role in helping to heal a vulnerable population throughout a pandemic means to her.

SAM DIER: What is a SANE nurse?
MINDI ROBLES: A sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) is a registered nurse who has been specially trained to provide comprehensive care to sexual assault survivors. The SANE Program goal is to provide high quality, consistent care to sexual assault survivors, while continuing to provide education and support to the SANEs and other professionals that serve this population.
What resources are available for patients who’ve suffered these traumas?
Regardless of how long ago, we always offer patients resources*. We want to make sure that they have connections with the rape crisis agencies and any resources that are available through the Illinois state Human Family Services. We’re able to provide this voucher that covers any medical expense related to their sexual assault for 90 days. We also encourage our patients to report to law enforcement, but they do have several options. They can report and talk to law enforcement in the emergency department or after they leave. They also may have the option of having the SANE nurse talk to police for them.

During the pandemic, did you ever have to turn anyone away?
No, never.
And why is that important to you?
I always want to have a SANE nurse available for these patients when they present. If a patient presents to a hospital that does not have a SANE program, they may have to transfer that patient to another hospital that does have those services, and historically we’ve never had to turn patients away or transfer them somewhere else.
What are your thoughts on victims who may have been quarantined with their assaulters? 
We talked about how that initial decrease in patients really concerned us because we knew that the assaults were still happening, but people weren’t getting the care that they needed. In most cases sexual assaults are perpetrated by someone the victim knows, including intimate partners, friends, caregivers and even family members, some of whom live in the same home. With the pandemic and the stay-at-home orders, the risk of sexual assault within a home has increased, and this is supported by the increase in the EDs number of survivors presenting for care.
By educating the public on what you do, can you see more assault victims choosing to seek help?
We see that victims of sexual assault go to clinics and doctor’s offices rather than emergency rooms because they don’t believe that a sexual assault is an emergency, and it absolutely is! We’re there for them, and this is a patient-centered care. Everything we do is at their pace and to help in their healing process.
It’s such a gray area because we’re taught that sexual assault and rape should look like a certain thing.
You bring up a good point because what you see on TV and in movies … it’s not always accurate. The first thing we want people to know when they come into the emergency department is that we believe you. We fully believe what has happened to you. We will not respond to you in a way that is judgmental or condescending. We understand trauma brain, how it affects people, and we’re here to address those issues.
What does it mean to provide this type of service, and what drives you to continue this line of work?
It’s something very rewarding to me that I can have a special training, a special set of skills, to help somebody and hopefully be a step in their healing process. I can prepare them and give them the resources they need to go forward, care for themselves, survive this trauma and be able to recover from it successfully. That’s why I do it.
If you or a loved one has experienced sexual assault, please visit the resources below:
Illinois Attorney General, SANE
Resilience: Rape Crisis Agency
*The emergency department must provide a patient priority access if a SANE or SAFE practitioner is requested at check-in. Please be advised.
Sam Dier is a social justice journalism graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @DierSam.