Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has recently raised concerns about the availability of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners at hospitals that serve her constituents in Washington state. Advocates say a lack of resources has made this a problem nationwide.
Murray sent a strongly worded letter to the Washington State Hospital Association this month after a local TV news station questioned whether hospitals have enough nurses who are trained to collect evidence of sexual assault through a medical forensic examination, more commonly referred to as a rape kit. It's not uncommon for larger hospitals to have a SANE available 24/7, but experts say the nation still doesn't have enough to adequately serve survivors.
In her letter, Murray told the hospital association that she has grown “increasingly concerned” about the the obstacles sexual assault survivors can face in obtaining a forensic exam. There's no collective data at the state level on which hospitals have trained nurses and forensic kits available, and there's a lack of uniformity in the information that is given to survivors, Murray noted.
Murray asked the association to create an action plan for ensuring hospitals have examinations on-site, train more providers to be SANEs and identify what needs to be done for a sexual assault survivor who presents at a hospital, even if the hospital does not employ an examiner.
Hospital association officials have spoken with Murray's office and are now collecting data on which hospitals have SANEs and other resources available, said spokeswoman Mary Kay Clunies-Ross. The state Legislature also formed a task force to address sexual violence issues this past legislative session.
Clunies-Ross stressed that not just any nurse can perform the exams, rather it takes significant experience to conduct the multi-hour procedure of collecting evidence while also treating physical symptoms and providing emotional support. She noted that the quality of a forensic exam can make or break the case against a perpetrator.
The International Association of Forensic Nurses estimates that only about 10% of U.S hospitals have a forensic nurse examiner available on site, and few hospitals have one available around-the-clock, said Carey Goryl, the group's CEO. Goryl thinks a lack of funding and resources has led providers to shy away from prioritizing rape kits as a service.
Some states share SANEs across hospitals, and that may become more popular as hospitals collaborate more. But Goryl believes that hospitals should see the value of employing forensic nurses because, in addition to sexual assault, a properly-trained forensic nurse can gather evidence for other crimes like domestic violence and strangulation, allowing the hospital to provide more services under the same job.
Especially in hospitals that don't employ a SANE, leaders need to coordinate with their nearby counterparts to ensure that they're helping patients get to help in the most efficient and timely way possible, Goryl said.
“(Hospitals) need to have clarity and work on agreements of transfer,” Goryl said. “That transfer process can be where we lose people.”