Malinda Bratosh Wheeler, ’81: Serving the Victims of Crime
October 15, 2013 by Lisa McMahon, M.A.'09
An aptitude test Malinda Bratosh Wheeler, ’81, took while she was a senior at Gowanda high school indicated that she should pursue a career as a minister, in social work, or as a nurse. Today, she combines elements of all three professions in her role as founder, director and owner of Forensic Nurse Specialists, Inc., a professional nursing corporation in California that provides examinations to victims of sexual assault.
Malinda first learned of the nursing specialty more than two decades ago, when she was looking for new material to teach the students in her senior nursing courses at Long Beach City College. She attended a seminar that discussed the forensic aspects of trauma nurses and discovered that nurses were starting to bridge the gap between health care and the legal system. These practitioners, who had a specialized knowledge of the legal system, not only tended to rape victims’ immediate health needs, but also conducted evidentiary examinations, provided medical testimony in court, and consulted with legal authorities on these cases. Malinda thought that this emerging specialty was an opportunity to combine her past hospital bedside experience, which she gained early in her career, with her interests in caring for the mental and emotional health of a patient and in the legal system.
When Malinda began networking with her peers across the country to find out more about forensic nursing, she discovered that many of these specialists were getting their foot in the door by serving as sexual assault nurse examiners. She also learned that in California, where she now lived, many emergency rooms did not have staff with the time or education to do a thorough exam and welcomed the assistance of outside providers. Malinda did a community needs assessment to determine if her adopted hometown of Long Beach needed such a service. It did.
So Malinda launched her company in 1993 and, 10 months later, contracted with the City of Long Beach to provide forensic nursing services through the Sexual Assault Response Team program she had initiated, which brings together a rape crisis center advocate, a forensic nurse, and the police department to support a victim through the examination and criminal justice process. The examinations are conducted in the privacy of a dedicated area in a hospital, where a victim can tell his or her story to the team at one time rather than reliving the trauma over and over again by meeting separately with each individual member.
When she started, Malinda worked with one hospital and one police agency and provided services for five to 10 cases each month. Today, her program assists with between 80 and 100 cases each month at seven different hospitals and in cooperation with 60 police agencies throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties.
The victims with which Malinda has been involved have ranged in age from three months to 92 years. She notes that one of her first big cases involved a serial rapist and a victim named Grace whose strength moved Malinda in a way she has never forgotten.
“There are people who touch you and you remember their story and carry it with you,” she says. “Grace is that person for me.”
Because of Grace’s determination and the evidence Malinda provided, the attacker was found and prosecuted. While that is not always the case, there is a 97 percent conviction rate when SART evidence is presented at trial.
Malinda’s role has evolved over the years, and today, she is administrator, supervisor and trainer for the 12 nurses on her staff. She also does consultation work with area district attorneys, is a guest lecturer on forensic nursing for local nursing programs, frequently presents on SART and related topics, and has served as an expert witness on more than 100 sexual assault cases. The desire to help others, which inspired her to enroll in NU’s nursing program more than 35 years ago, still motivates her work today.
“Seeing my business grow and expand every year has been rewarding,” she says, “because we are serving not only the victims of crime, but society in general. I don’t get up and go to work in the morning – I get up and work my mission. My team of nurses and I are in a battle every day against the evil people do.”