Spokane Journal of Business

In wake of Senator’s inquiry, hospitals here say aid to sexual assault victims is good

Broad review sought over treatment inconsistencies

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-—Kevin Blocker
Robbie Thorn, emergency center manager at Providence Holy Family Hospital, says she has worked to make sure nurses are fully trained to treat sexual assault victims.
-—Kevin Blocker
A standardized kit is used in sexual assault cases. All of the Spokane-area hospitals say they don’t turn away victims when they seek treatment.

Spokane-area hospital officials say they have the appropriate trained staff and forensic rape kit tests to treat sexual assault victims properly.

But U.S. Sen Patty Murray, D-Wash., says that’s not the case statewide. Murray recently sent a letter to the Washington State Hospital Association expressing concerns about the ability of hospitals across the state to effectively assist rape victims.

Murray wrote the letter after a rape victim contacted her office and described being turned away and sent to another medical facility. Murray is the ranking member of the U.S. Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee (HELP). 

The four-term senator says she wants an update on what state hospital association members are currently doing to support sexual assault survivors, and on what can be done to strengthen support and to make sure hospitals are using the best practices.

Murray says recent reports to her office indicate that some Washington state hospitals are denying victims access to medical forensic examinations, also known as rape kits.  Murray’s letter says it is normal practice for many hospitals to send survivors to other facilities due to a lack of resources or trained staff available to treat survivors when they enter the hospital.

But that’s not the case here, says Robbie Thorn, the emergency center manager at Providence Holy Family Hospital. Thorn has been at Providence for 29 years, serving in management positions in the Holy Family and Sacred Heart Medical Center emergency departments. During that time, she has been a leader in helping ensure that Providence emergency room nurses are fully trained to provide sexual assault examinations and the physical and emotional care needed for victims of sexual assault.

Additionally, Deaconess Hospital and the Valley Hospital, both of which operate under the Rockwood Health System, have nurses trained to treat sexual assault victims and apply the use of rape kits, says senior marketing director Jill Fix.

“Nurses care for these patients at both facilities, and Deaconess Hospital also has one trained sexual assault nurse examiner on staff. Rockwood Health System is dedicated to taking care of our patients,” Fix says.

 Years ago, all sexual assault victims were sent exclusively to Deaconess Hospital.

“There were pros and cons to that, but ultimately each hospital needs to be doing its own treatment,” Thorn says. “It didn’t feel right to send someone away to another facility given the emotional trauma they were experiencing.”

Thorn believes the Spokane community takes the issue of sexual assault seriously. She is part of a 15-member task force called the Adult Victims of Sexual Assault Committee. The group is comprised of people representing health care, law enforcement, the legal community, and various advocacy and support groups.

“It’s very beneficial to have these different members from different occupations coming together to address sexual assault in attempts to educate people and try to make our community safer,” she says.

Statewide, however, Murray says there is a lack of uniformity in assisting sexual assault victims.

“I am aware of at least one instance in which a constituent was denied a medical forensic examination (MFE) at a hospital in King County,” Murray’s letter says. “My constituent was informed that she would have to go to another hospital for an MFE, and was not informed that those transportation expenses would be covered.

“Discouraged and tired, she understandably went home rather than getting the medical attention she needed,” Murray’s letter says. “A review by my staff suggests that some hospitals in King County do not provide access to MFEs or have trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) on staff, and that it is normal practice for many hospitals across the state to send survivors to other facilities.”

Mary Kay Clunies Ross, spokeswoman for the Washington State Hospital Association in Seattle, says the association is creating a survey that will be sent to the 88 medical facilities across the state with emergency rooms, in response to Murray’s concerns. “We’ve had a couple of conversations with Senator Murray’s office,” Clunies Ross says. “We want to better understand the challenges and maybe even barriers some hospitals face from one medical facility to the next.”

It is difficult to understand the scope of the problem because there is no comprehensive data at the state level revealing which hospitals have sexual assault nurse examiners or rape kits,

Murray’s letter, citing data from a national crime victimization survey, says that about 270,000 sexual assaults occur each year, with more than 90 percent committed against women. 

“This translates to 1 in 5 women being sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetime,” Murray writes.

“While it may not be possible for every hospital in our state to have fully trained SANEs on staff, more clearly needs to be done to ensure that survivors who take the difficult step of seeking care are not essentially turned away at the door,” the letter says.

The rape examination kits have the ability to play a vital role for law enforcement and prosecutors in criminal cases, Clunies Ross says.

“It isn’t that they are turned away because they don’t want to help the victim. In many instances, it may be that the facility doesn’t have the trained staffed to be able to assist the victim and will refer them to a hospital that does,” Clunies Ross says.

Compounding matters is a backlog of rape kits once they’ve been collected by hospital staff and forwarded to law enforcement for forensic testing.

In May, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signed a new law that requires law enforcement agencies to submit rape kits for testing within 30 days of receiving them from hospital staff. The law calls for the creation of a task force to address backlogs and develop a response plan 

The Spokane Police Department earlier this year said it has a little more than 200 untested kits while the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office said has 80 yet to be tested.

The Harborview Center for Sexual Assault and Traumatic Stress in Seattle conducts statewide training for nurses on how to treat sexual assault victims. Harborview has received national recognition from the medical community and sexual assault advocacy groups for its efforts. Both Thorn and Fix say emergency room nurses at Spokane’s four largest hospitals are required to complete the Harborview training.

Thorn estimates treating sexual assault victims and the use of the rape kit takes an average of about two hours. Hospital staff will only notify law enforcement if the victim wants to file a report.

“We’re here to help them and cater to their needs,” Thorn says. 

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