The volume of sex crimes in the region is forcing some local hospitals to expand their care programs and may have created the need for a separate treatment facility dedicated to those victims, many of whom increasingly are children.
In 2013, Franciscan Alliance treated 108 sexual assault victims at its local hospitals, 32 percent of whom were pediatric patients.
Methodist Hospitals reported similar numbers for 2013, with 117 sexual assault cases at its Gary and Merrillville campuses combined. Of those, 55 were pediatric patients.
Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter thinks the true number is higher.
Cases often go unreported because they involve family members or neighbors. Victims or their guardians think they can handle it without involving authorities, he said.
"It's larger than what we know and are actually dealing with," Carter said.
People may tell the criminal to stop and to stay away from the victim, especially if it's a child.
"These are sexual predators," Carter said. "And they're just going to find someone else."
About 20 attorneys in Carter's office handle sexual assault cases. Many have 10 to 15 at any given time.
"It's somewhat of an epidemic-type situation," he said.
He said education is key to get more cases reported.
"You shouldn't let things be handled through family," he said. "If they're doing it to a child, there may be more."
Nancy Healy, a sexual assault nurse examiner, or SANE, is leading an effort to open NWI Forensic Services in June in a discreet Schererville location.
The facility would treat sexual assault victims.
“It's going to be staffed 24/7 with SANE nurses for adults and pediatrics,” Healy said.
Licensing is being finalized for the nonprofit medical center, which would rely on grants, donations and fundraising, Healy said.
She is working with law enforcement, the Lake County prosecutor's office, Lake County Sexual Assault Response Team, Child Protective Services, hospitals, medical providers, emergency medical services and advocates to make the center a reality.
Healy started the first 24/7 SANE center in Cook County, at South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest, modeled on a successful system in Fort Wayne, which pools SANE nurses. The Schererville site will follow that model.
All region hospitals offer specialized care for sexual assault victims.
Hospitals usually have a separate, discreet area to care for these patients, said Michelle Resendez, regional SANE coordinator for northern Indiana region of Franciscan Alliance.
"Privacy is huge," she said. "When patients come in with a sexual assault, they're considered critical parties."
They also are at high risk of leaving because of their fragile emotional state.
Hospital staff limit victims' exposure to workers, so people are not walking in and out of the room often. And they are limited in how many times they have to repeat their story, to minimize further trauma, Resendez said.
Victims who are hesitant to come forward or who think they washed away evidence by showering have a longer time frame to seek care than they may realize, she said.
The law allows evidence collection in Indiana up to five days after the crime, and, in Illinois, up to seven days after the crime, she said.
Cindy Mele, nurse manager of the emergency room at Methodist Hospitals Northlake Campus in Gary, said the evidence collection process can take three hours.
Special care and privacy is given.
"These are victims of assault," Mele said. "We want to let them know they're safe. It's humiliating, it's upsetting. Think of all the emotions."
Porter Regional Hospital has six SANE nurses for adult cases and two for pediatrics, said Brenda Rogers, director of emergency services at the hospital.
All emergency department physicians are trained to identify, screen and treat sexual assault victims as well, she said.
The hospital emergency department has a designated suite specifically to examine and treat sexual assault victims.
"Located in a more secluded area of the emergency department, the suite has a private bathroom and shower and changing area," Rogers said. "Clothing is also available and provided to these patients following examination."
The hospitals of Community Healthcare System uses SANE nurses, system spokeswoman Elise Sims said.
"We are in the process of expanding this program so that more nurse examiners can be available if needed," she said. "We are able to perform a private exam in any one of our hospital’s Emergency Department exam rooms — as we understand privacy is key for these patients."
Franciscan is looking to train SANE nurses for pediatric care, perhaps with a program in late spring or early summer.
"We're seeing an increase across our pediatric population," Resendez said.
Pediatric cases often have to be transferred to other hospitals because not enough nurses are qualified to treat children who are victims of sexual assault.