Proposed bill could strengthen care for sexual assault survivors

Updated: May. 22, 2019 at 6:33 PM CDT
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - Just about every day in East Baton Rouge Parish, someone makes a trip to a hospital to get a sexual assault exam.

“What we do is we act as a point of contact when survivors need a forensic medical exam. We dispatch our advocates to sit with them during the exam,” said Rachael Herbert, president and CEO of Sexual Trauma Awareness & Response (STAR).

It sounds alarming, but those are facts straight from experts at STAR. When a survivor chooses to report an assault to a hospital, it’s one of the most critical moments in a potential investigation. Herbert says national Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) protocol suggests an exam must be conducted within 96 hours of the assault; some doctors won’t perform one past 72 hours.

“The evidence collection exam is actually a very complicated and detailed exam, which is why we promote using SANEs or someone that is forensically trained, whether that be a doctor or a nurse,” Herbert explained.

“We’re about the victim,” East Baton Rouge Coroner Dr. Beau Clark explained. “So the victim goes to a hospital. We go to that hospital and take care of that victim.”

SANE works for the East Baton Rouge Coroner’s Office. It has been that way since the 1970s.

“The coroner’s responsibility, sole responsibility is the collection of evidence,” Clark said.

Clark says SANEs are platinum, the gold standard when it comes to getting evidence properly from victims. There are about 20 to 30 of them in the entire state. Those specialized, forensically trained nurses work around the clock.

In 2018, Clark says they looked into 250 sexual assault cases; the same goes for 2017.

A plan making its way through Congress hopes to strengthen care nationwide. It’s called the Survivors’ Access to Supportive Care Act. The bill hopes to award grants to individual states to train more people and make sure programs are thriving.

“If a survivor presents to an emergency room with a doctor that is untrained or not qualified as SANEs are, it could compromise the evidence, which is why this act is so important, to ensure that survivors are able to get medical care, but they’re also set up for a successful trial,” Herbert explained.

If passed, funding would be awarded through the Louisiana Department of Health (LDH). WAFB reached out to the state for comment and received the following statement:

“This is federal legislation that has not yet become law. We are monitoring this legislation and are supportive of any attempt to bring more resources to strengthening the sexual assault examiner workforce in Louisiana. If this legislation passes, the Department of Health would have to apply for funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.”

If a survivor is in need of forensic medical help or support, they should call 1-855-435-STAR.

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