New law requires all ERs to have staff trained to collect basic sexual assault evidence

Posted Monday, Sep. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A new law that went into effect Sunday aims to make it easier for victims of sexual assault to go to hospital emergency rooms closer to home for collection of forensic evidence.

Before, they had to go to state-certified hospitals designated to provide primary care for sexual assault victims. John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth, for example, was the designated hospital for sexual assault victims in Tarrant, Parker, Wise, Erath, Hood, Johnson, Somervell, Palo Pinto and Ellis counties, meaning some crime victims had to drive up to 1 1/2 hours for a basic exam and collection of evidence.

But as of Sunday, all hospital emergency rooms must have physicians and nurses trained to collect basic forensic evidence in sexual assault cases.

Hospital representatives and prosecutors say that might encourage more victims, some of whom are badly injured, to follow through with a criminal complaint if they don’t have to travel to another hospital for another exam.

“We want to make it easier for victims to be able to come forward and to get this medical treatment and the help they need,” said prosecutor Sheila Wynn, adding that the Tarrant County district attorney’s office supported the effort.

“Theoretically the person can go to one place and get everything done now.”

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, was the primary author of Senate Bill 1191, which Gov. Rick Perry signed into law in May.

“This is a victory for care, compassion and smart law enforcement,” Davis said in a prepared statement after the Texas Senate unanimously passed the bill in April. “I wrote this bill to help victims of sexual assault, preserve evidence after these horrible crimes are committed, and help bring to justice the perpetrators of these crimes.”

The new law does not require all hospital emergency rooms to provide the same level of service that sexual assault victims can find at hospitals with state-certified Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programs. Those include JPS and Texas Heath Harris Methodist Hospital in Fort Worth, and Parkland Memorial Hospital and Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

But the law does require hospitals to give patients the option of being transferred to those facilities, which offer dedicated nurses, more privacy, access to counseling and specialized equipment not typically found in emergency rooms, such as colposcopes, for examining and documenting genital injuries.

JPS, which has had a SANE program for more than 20 years, conducts between 48 and 50 sexual assault examinations each month for the nine-county area it serves, said Connie Housley, the SANE clinical coordinator.

Those patients are ushered to a private waiting area away from other emergency room visitors and are attended to by one of nine dedicated nurses, who are trained in forensic interviewing and spend, on average, three hours with each victim.

In addition to documenting and treating injuries and providing medication to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy, the nurses connect patients with law enforcement, rape crisis counseling and other services they may need. They also can testify in court as expert witnesses.

“It’s not just about collecting forensic evidence,” Housley said. “We are specialized in taking care of these patients, in helping them deal with this trauma.”

Harris Methodist started a SANE program last year with eight certified nurses in response to patients who did not want to be transferred to the county hospital, said Jamie Ramsey, SANE program supervisor.

“It’s difficult to come [to the emergency room] anyway. You are talking to a group of people here and then you are told, ‘Oh, by the way, we are going to have to send you someplace else,’” Ramsey said. “Some people actually refused to go.”

Since last September, the hospital has performed 55 sexual assault examinations for patients who would have otherwise been sent to JPS.

“It was unacceptable to me for us to have to send our patients away after all they had already been through,” said Judy Horton, the Harris emergency department director who pushed for the SANE program. “We are a trauma center. A lot of times these patients are severely injured. We needed to be able to perform these exams at our own facility. Anytime you have to transport a patient away, it’s risky and it’s inconvenient for the patient and their family.”

Housley and Ramsey said they hope sexual assault victims will continue to seek treatment at certified SANE programs, but they believe the new law will help victims who live in more rural areas find help more quickly.

“I don’t want anybody not reporting this,” Housley said. “I don’t want anybody not getting a basic exam.”

One thing not spelled out in the law is who will provide the training for basic evidence collection. SANE programs are overseen by the Texas attorney general’s office.

“We are concerned about the integrity of the evidence,” prosecutor Wynn said. “If it’s going to be something we will possibly use in court, we will want someone who is trained in how to properly collect evidence rather than an amateur.”

The Dallas-Fort Worth Hospital Council plans to sponsor a workshop for local hospitals in late September to discuss the new law and provide overviews on topics including how to administer a rape kit and preserve evidence for trial, said council President Steve Love.

“Hospitals are going to comply with this law and do what they need to. Any sexual assault victim that comes to any of our hospitals, we will do the very best we possibly can for them,” Love said. “What you don’t want to do is have all the emergency room doctors and staff being subpoenaed to court.”

Susan Schrock, 817-390-7639 Twitter: @susanschrock

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