AUSTIN, TX--For 15 years, Evangeline Barefoot, a sexual assault nurse examiner in Williamson County, has had to collect evidence with 80-year-old technology invented for detecting cervical cancer.
But Barefoot and two other nurses in the county will become the first in the state to use a new system that they think will be less invasive for the patients and give prosecutors stronger evidence more quickly.
Each nurse will have her own Secure Digital Forensic Imaging TeleMedicine system that involves three elements: a camera to record data, software to store the data and an encrypted folder in which the information is transmitted.
"The entire forensic folder can be sent with one e-mail," said Linda Sifuentes, a sexual assault nurse examiner at Scott and White University Medical Campus in Round Rock who received the new system May 9 .
Sifuentes said this is different from the old method, which involved several more time-consuming steps, including taking pictures with several different cameras, printing out those pictures, gathering evidence and delivering all samples to law enforcement officials . The new machine, which costs about $18,500, will allow law enforcement officials and prosecutors to see the photographic file and documentation immediately, but physical evidence such as DNA will still be taken to the state for processing.
The colposcope that had been used cost up to $40,000 and was invasive, nurses said. It is a camera attached to a long, adjustable arm.
"It basically looks like something a dentist would use," said Sheila Dolbow, a sexual assault nurse examiner at Cedar Park Regional Medical Center who was the first to use the new system in April after the hospital bought it. The medical center then joined the Sexual Assault Response Team to perform examinations for the county.
Sifuentes and Dolbow have their own systems at their hospitals, and Barefoot will use the one at the Williamson County Children's Advocacy Center. The nurses will take turns being on call for the center and will examine children who may be sexual assault victims.
Almost 80 sexual assault exams were performed last year, Barefoot said, and nurses have already seen a 12 percent increase from this time last year.
Dolbow said the colposcope, which is used to take close-up pictures and video, is especially intimidating for kids. She said the camera used in the new system is portable and looks like a digital camera.
"This job is already frustrating because all you want to do is make things better for the patients," Dolbow said. "With this, I think we can do it."
The camera is used to take pictures of the body and can zoom in by more than 100 percent on a photo without it becoming blurry, Dolbow said. The software is designed so that large files with pictures can be sent through e-mail, and folders are all encrypted at a military level.
"In other words, no one's going to get these files that shouldn't," said Ward Allen, a forensic imaging consultant with Secure Digital Forensic Imaging in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Allen said Williamson County is one of about 30 places around the country using the system, which was developed after four years of research.
John Foster, a detective with the Williamson County sheriff's office, said the system sounds foolproof.
"The only person who won't benefit from this is the suspect," Foster said. The exam "is a beneficial tool in observing evidence in sexual assault cases, and these cases are made due to this exam."
Although Foster and the three nurses who are pioneering the system think the technology will hold up in court, others have doubts.
"All I say is beware of the latest fad or latest machinery," said Keith Hampton, a criminal defense lawyer in Austin. "While most are pretty good, they are made by humans, and we are fallible."
The system Barefoot will use was donated to the Williamson County Children's Advocacy Center by Patricia Crane at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
Crane, who is a forensic nurse researcher and a sexual assault nurse examiner, said the county, with the involvement of law enforcement, health care providers and community leaders, has what she considers a model program.