Caring for the Abused

Kaylin Dawson supports and cares for victims of violence

Kaylin Dawson, of Cohoes, New York, always knew she wanted to be an ER nurse, but it wasn’t until she learned about sexual assault nursing that she realized what she was meant to do. Dawson graduated from Hudson Valley Community College in 2006 with her nursing degree and immediately began working in the Emergency Department at Albany Medical Center. It was there she learned that nurses conducted sexual assault exams on victims of violence. Not many people were doing that kind of nursing, but Dawson decided to try it. Now, as the sexual assault nurse coordinator, she oversees a staff of 13 nurses to care for and examine victims of sexual assault and domestic violence.

The early days in the ER exposed her to things not covered in nursing school. “It took me into a different avenue of nursing that I didn’t know existed while going through nursing school. And it’s made me proud to know I’ve had an impact on patients who come in for those sorts of things,” she says.

Dawson’s career at Albany Medical Center has progressed as she earned additional nursing degrees. Dawson earned a Bachelor of Science in Nursing from Excelsior College in 2012, and in 2013, she became the sexual assault nurse coordinator. In this role, she worked with the hospital management to implement protocols so examiners could start examining children who have experienced abuse. In 2020, Dawson earned her Master of Science in Nursing Education from Excelsior, and early in 2021, she again partnered with hospital leadership to implement a program so that nurse examiners can see victims of domestic violence, not just sexual abuse. With the patients’ consent, examiners are able to document and photograph the injuries and care for the patients who come in for treatment. Contrary to popular belief, explains Dawson, the examiners do not work for law enforcement and they do not divulge any information to police officers unless patients give their consent. “We don’t call law enforcement; we really respect their [the patient] decision and support them in whatever decisions they want to make,” says Dawson.

Another part of Dawson’s job includes sharing her knowledge with others. She lectures in the community and at national conferences to teach Child Protective Service workers, law enforcement, Title IX coordinators, and other health workers about sexual assault, child abuse, and human trafficking. She also sits on multiple community task forces to build relationships and work for victims of sexual assault, human trafficking, and child abuse.

Dawson says as nurses and, furthermore, as a community, it’s important to work together to care for patients who experience sexual assault violence and be supportive of their decisions. Sometimes this is hard to do. For instance, learning the patient’s background and acknowledging the role trauma has played in their life (also known as trauma-informed care) can affect examiners mentally and emotionally. Dawson has taken steps to make sure her examiners aren’t overwhelmed by hard cases. She limits their shifts to 12 hours, makes sure to speak with them at an annual decompression meeting, and encourages self-care. Dawson points out that with the impact of COVID-19, many nurses are experiencing particularly high levels of burnout. In addition,  in Dawson’s line of work, it’s important to recognize that vicarious trauma can take its toll. “Being able to recognize that you are experiencing it can be difficult, but knowing available resources like EAP, pastoral care, and healthy mechanisms for outlets is important,” says Dawson, noting that she has personally taken advantage of pastoral care.

With the possibility that working with trauma patients having such a negative effect on the examiners’ well-being, it might seem like a difficult choice to be a sexual assault nurse. Dawson agrees that it is. She says this avenue of nursing is certainly not for everybody, but it can be personally rewarding. Sometimes the nurse can help solve crimes by collecting evidence and finding justice for victims of sexual and domestic abuse when they otherwise might not be able to speak up for themselves. “It seems like definitely you’re in a position where a lot of responsibility falls on your shoulders, and it’s up to you to say the things that sometimes the patient and the victim can’t say or are too afraid to say. You could be the only person a victim discloses abuse to,” she says. Learn about how you can also help survivors recover psychologically with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology.

More from Kaylin Dawson


What is the best source for people to find information about sexual assault?

I would definitely tell people to look up their local crisis advocacy centers. We work closely here in Albany with Albany County Rape Crisis, so they are always a good source of information. Everyone should have one locally, no matter what state you’re in. The state’s Department of Health website has all of this information.

What do you think is necessary and important for somebody to succeed as a sexual assault nurse?

They have to understand that these patients can bring on vicarious trauma. I think people recognize that early on. I lecture about child abuse, sexual assault, and human trafficking. And none of those are warm and fuzzy topics…But in the end, you could really make a difference, whether that is bringing justice for a patient, or if it’s just being an ear for that day for a patient. If it’s a removal from a family because the child has been abused….There’s always a reason to believe that there’s good in the world, no matter what outcome you may have.

What would you say to someone who wanted to start a sexual assault program at their hospital?

So, I would say that majority of nurses may not even know to look into the hospital that they’re working with and see if they have programs. And if not, work on establishing one with your hospital leadership group. The importance of a sexual assault program and examiners is not only to address a patient’s emotional needs, and collect forensic evidence, but also to empower victims from the moment they come into a hospital. It is the essence of nursing, to take care of others.