As you've surely witnessed on the police procedural shows that saturate primetime TV, when a victim of sexual assault goes to the hospital, a nurse or examiner performs a "rape kit," a forensic exam designed to collect and preserve evidence from the victim's body.
Ideally, the people who do these exams will be trained in the unique skill set they need to do this: collecting blood and semen samples, combing for public hairs, documenting cuts and bruises—all which become crucial as evidence if there is a criminal case. Examiners may be called to testify in court.
There's also the mental health component: how to talk to a victim and how to get them resources they might need following the attack, like counseling and referrals. Some examiners are trained specifically to work with child victims.
But a new report released today by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reveals that a lot of this training simply isn't happening. The new research shows the challenges that sexual assault survivors across the country face in getting quality care once they set foot in the hospital.
The report found that, while federal funding is available to states to train specialized examiners and fund the positions, many states aren't training nearly enough people. The GAO found that many states don't even provide data on how many trained examiners they have, and ones that do are short-staffed, "especially in rural areas," according to the report.
One example: "Officials in Wisconsin explained that nearly half of all counties in the state do not have any examiners available," says the report.
Survivors get care that may not meet their needs or help them hold perpetrators accountable.
The report also found that most states do not have guidelines for the training itself. And for people who do work as sexual examiners, the drop-off rate is high. Long hours lead to burnout. "Officials in Florida told us that examiners may be on-call for 6-hour, 12-hour, or even 24-hour shifts," the report says.
The job takes an emotional toll, and many quit. "Officials in one state [Wisconsin] estimated that while the state trained 540 examiners over a two-year period, only 42 of those examiners were still practicing in the state at the end of those two years," according to the GAO.
"When a survivor goes to a hospital and seeks treatment for sexual assault, she deserves to be given respect, compassion, and a commitment to helping her get justice," says Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), "It is so important that hospitals have staff on hand who are trained to offer that kind of support. Unfortunately, the report we are releasing today shows that too often this isn't the case—and instead, survivors get care that may not meet their needs or help them hold perpetrators accountable."
Murray, along with Senators Michael Bennet (D-CO) and Al Franken (D-MN) is asking the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to take this on, in a letter to HHS and the Attorney General. The letter also asks that the department create federal standards of care for examiners.
"Studies have shown that when exams are performed by medical providers trained to collect and preserve evidence, victims have better physical and mental health outcomes, higher quality evidence is collected, and prosecution rates are higher," the senators write.
Nearly one in five woman and one in 59 men have been raped in their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In 2013 (the last year for which there are statistics), about 285,000 individuals, age 12 or older, were reported victims of sexual assault.
"This has got to change," says Murray. "I'm going to continue pushing for better access and higher quality care for survivors of sexual assault in Washington state and across the country."