Jenifer Nerone is delivering a lesson on female anatomy. The 52-year-old registered nurse takes her audience through infancy to menopause, describes in detail the layout of the vagina and spends some time talking about changes to the hymenal ring brought on by the onset of puberty. But this isn’t a classroom and the attentive audience isn’t nursing students. Nerone is on the witness stand in Ulster County Court testifying in the trial of a 17-year-old accused of the attempted rape of a 9-year-old girl.
Nerone is an Ulster County sexual assault nurse examiner. In fact, she’s the only certified SANE nurse in a community where sexual assaults occur more often than most people think — or would care to imagine. In an average year Nerone can expect to be called out about 50 times, at all hours of the day or night to perform a detailed forensic examination of a suspected sex crime victim. About 10 percent of those cases end up before a grand jury (victims do not need to report an assault to police to get a SANE examination and some assailants will waive their right to a grand jury proceeding) where Nerone will testify about the results of the exam. About once a year, Nerone finds herself on the witness stand where her work will have to stand up under sometimes-withering cross examination. In 15 years on the job Nerone, who works full-time as an emergency room nurse at Kingston Hospital, has examined hundreds of patients — mostly, but not exclusively, female, ranging in age from a few months to 83 years old. It’s a job that combines the skills of a crime scene investigator, a social worker and nurse and an expert witness. It’s one that law enforcement officials credit with helping bring to justice perpetrators who might otherwise go unpunished.
“Having someone like Jen Nerone, who’s forensically trained, can make a huge difference,” said District Attorney Holley Carnright. “She’s trained to focus on the types of evidence we want to find.”
Ulster County’s SANE program, the first in New York State, was founded in 1995. At first, the goal was simply to keep sex crime victims out of the emergency room where the atmosphere, and the possibility of running into family or friends, might dissuade some victims from seeking help. Back then, exams were carried out in a trailer parked behind Benedictine Hospital’s ER. Nowadays, the program is headquartered in a small, private exam room at Kingston Hospital. Over the years, as evidence collection and DNA analysis has advanced, the exam has evolved. Now, there’s a state-standardized 13-step “rape kit” with uniform procedures for the collection, storage and labeling of everything from mouth swabs to fingernail scrapings to blood and urine samples in cases where the victim believes they were drugged. While Nerone usually examines victims, she can also carry out a “reverse rape kit” on suspects in cases where the alleged perpetrator gives his consent or is served with a subpoena.