Lawmakers want easier access to rape kits

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Emry Dinman/Columbia Basin Herald Leah Griffin testifying before the House Health Care & Wellness Committee about the difficulties she faced in 2014 while trying to get a rape kit done.

OLYMPIA — In most parts of Washington, rape victims may have to drive hours to the nearest hospital, only to find the facility is incapable of performing the exam needed to convict the rapist.

That was the case in 2014 for Leah Griffin, a member of the Washington Sexual Assault Forensic Examination task force, who shared her experience with state lawmakers Friday. After Griffin was drugged and raped, she drove to the nearest emergency room in Ballard, only to find that hospital didn’t have the rape kits used to collect forensic evidence.

“They seemed to have no idea what to do when I presented there,” Griffin said.

Griffin was told to drive herself or pay for an ambulance to go to Harborview. Dazed, she went home. By the time she got herself to Harborview later that day, it was too late. Prosecutors told her that they could not prove that Griffin had not taken the drugs herself.

To Griffin, it seemed like a cascade of failures at every level of a system that was supposed to help her.

“I believe that had the original hospital I went to provided a rape kit, my rapist would be in jail right now,” Griffin said. “He is not.”

State lawmakers are looking at eliminating this gap in services HB 2101, which would start the ball rolling toward consistency of care for victims of sexual assault.

If passed, the Washington Office of Crime Victims Advocacy would publish recommendations for creating mobile teams of sexual assault nurse examiners, or SANE, that would administer rape kits in local communities. These recommendations would be voluntary under the proposal, and communities could choose whether to adopt them.

The OCVA would also research strategies to make SANE training more accessible to nurses, who currently travel for programs at Harborview, though no increases in accessibility would be seen until the legislature implements these findings.

Jennifer Muhm, of the Washington State Nurses Association, drove to Olympia to speak on behalf of Martha Phillips, a SANE working in Whatcom and Skagit counties. Phillips had planned to drive from Whatcom County Thursday night so she could testify but was called in to perform a sexual assault exam.

Muhm, reading from notes prepared by Phillips, said that rural nurses especially need more training, as well as decisive plans of action from communities when someone is the victim of sexual assault.

Muhm noted that Whatcom County hospitals had seen more than 110 victims of sexual assault, including both children and adults.

Nurses trained as SANEs require special training in order to provide care for a child. Moses Lake’s Samaritan Healthcare, for instance, has access to five nurses who can assist adults, but there is only one trained to care for children.

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