Queensland's secret weapon for solving sex crimes
IN an Australian first, forensic evidence from victims of violent and sexual crimes will now be collected within a Gold Coast hospital's emergency department.
The Gold Coast University Hospital is now the home of two forensic medical officers (FMO), who specialise in the collection of forensic evidence from both victims and perpetrators of crime.
Previously, traumatised victims of sexual assault were forced to wait hours before seeing one of the specialist doctors to have forensic evidence collected, or were put in a hazmat suit and driven to Brisbane to see one of the doctors.
The FMOs will also work closely with the Gold Coast watch-house to examine and treat offenders.
Since beginning their tenure just over two weeks ago, the FMOs have worked on at least four cases.
Director of Emergency Department Dr David Green said there was a clear need for the two FMOs. Two more will be added in coming months.
"The Gold Coast is the sixth-biggest city in Australia … the forensic medical matters that happen in this region are similar to most big cities," Dr Green said.
"The forensic medical officers are typically involved in assaults, involved in watch-house management of patients with drug addiction or chronic medical illness and particularly in the area of sexual assault.
"It's important for those vulnerable patients and victims of crime that they have a rapid response time and a professional, highly trained specialist forensic physician to both look after the patient in a holistic way and manage all medical legal issues that may result from that examination."
He said the service was previously inadequate for the Coast.
"The service was Brisbane based and the response times were inadequate to provide reasonable care for a large number of those patients on the Gold Coast.
"We still had access to a forensic medical officer, but it was through a fairly precarious process and often led to significant delays for those patients.
"(The delays were tough) particularly for women waiting evidence collection.
"It's a community need, the fact that it's based here is ideal, the response times for the patients is short.
Forensic medical officer Dr Cathy Lincoln said they were the point where medical and criminal justice meet.
"We provide a service that collects evidence and assists investigations … to assist the courts.
"It is an impartial, unbiased service to assist with collection of evidence, for victims of crime, but also offenders in investigations, the examination for injuries and collection of samples may assist an investigation," Dr Lincoln said.
"As far as investigations, from a victim's point of view, if she's scratched the assailant or she's left evidence of herself on him that might be something that is useful for her investigation.
"Essentially, clinical forensic medicine revolves around injury interpretation and collection of trace evidence, biological evidence - hairs, bodily fluids.
"One of us might be here examining a victim and another one of us might be down at the watch-house examining the offender on the same day.
"We would be asked to write a report for the police, outlining the evidence that has been collected and then we would be asked to go to court at sometime in the next two to three years.
"It is the part of medicine that is at the interface with the law."
Dr Lincoln said this type of work and the integration into the GCUH's emergency department would be watched closely and emulated across the country.
"I believe it's the first hospital to have a clinical forensic medical unit within the emergency department.
"This is very innovative for Australia. There are some ED-based clinical forensics medical units in parts of Europe and I think there is one or two in the States.
"We envisage a team of specialist doctors, ED doctors who perhaps have an interest in forensic medicine and specialist-trained nurses, working together to provide a quick response and a good specialist service."
She said this was the future of forensic medicine "because there is so much forensic medical issues that come up within an ED that perhaps we're not even seeing".
Regional Crime Coordinator Kerry Johnson said having FMOs based within the emergency department would help investigations and ease the process of evidence gathering for potential victims.
"In the past we may have had to take victims elsewhere to be looked at by a forensic medical officer, especially after hours, which is extremely hard on victims and even on the investigators," he said.
"Alternatively, it can be where we are taking out certain orders and we have an offender in custody and we need to take out a forensic medical order to gather evidence from them, it makes our job that bit more streamlined, if it can all be done at the hospital or the watch-house. And it's an impartial third party who is dealing with it."