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Bi-partisan support for bill to help rape victims

(File, Associated Press)

Obtaining a rape kit in can be a major challenge for someone who is sexually assaulted. A bill introduced in Congress by two lawmakers from Washington state aims to change that.

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It’s known as SASCA — or the Survivor’s Access to Supportive Care Act — and it has been a passion for Democratic Senator Patty Murray since she found out about the lack of access to sexual assault examiner nurses in hospitals across our state and the country.

Murray first learned about the problem when she heard from Leah Griffin — who was raped in 2014.

“When I came to, I was disoriented and bleeding,” Griffin said. “I drove to the closest emergency room. I told them what had happened. They shrugged their shoulders and said, ‘We don’t do rape kits here.’ I had the option, at that point, to either drive myself across the city or take an ambulance at my own expense. Neither option was realistic at the time. So I submitted to a medical exam and I went home.”

Eventually, Leah made her way to the other hospital where she could have a rape test done.

“At the time, it was the only hospital in my county that provided rape kits,” Griffin said. “I had a rape kit done. But that delay in care and the contamination of the crime scene — my body — contributed to prosecutors’ decision to decline charges in my case.”

You may think that happened in a smaller town or rural area with fewer hospitals and staff. It didn’t. It happened in Seattle four years ago.

Leah says her situation is not unique.

“Out of one thousand rapes, only six results in a prison sentence. We have a justice system that demands empirical evidence to prosecute rapes but then denies victims access to that evidence collection and due process. There are rape victims all over the country being turned away from hospitals, who are driving hundreds of miles for care.”

Frustrated, Leah turned to Senator Murray, who had a Government Accountability Report done in 2015 and found massive gaps in sexual assault care services.

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The two have been working together since to get this bill done.

“It is absolutely unacceptable that someone would go to seek care and justice for sexual assault and be told ‘Not here or try next door,’ Murray said. “The Survivor’s Access to Supportive Care Act will help us make sure that this no longer happens to survivors across the country who are seeking help. Our legislation takes important steps to make sure we treat sexual assault examinations as a health care priority, not an afterthought or an inconvenience.”

One of the big issues with this is that nobody is tracking where and which hospitals actually have sexual assault examiners. The best estimate from the international association of forensic nurses is that between 14 and 17 percent of major hospitals have them. Part of what the bill does is fund a state-by-state survey so there’s a starting point. It also includes training more sexual assault examiner nurses, continuing education of those nurses, and increasing access to rape kits at hospitals across the country.

The last time this bill was introduced it didn’t make it far. This time around there’s a companion bill that was introduced in the House by Washington Democratic Congressmember Pramila Jayapal, who says this legislation is vital for victims of sexual assault.

“A large majority go — as Leah did — to a U.S. emergency room that does not have the capability to respond, does not have sexual assault nurse examiners to collect evidence, which is absolutely crucial to completing the rape kits in the most non-invasive way,” Jayapal said. “And for helping survivors like Leah to take those next steps forward for healing and for justice.”

Here is the other big difference this time around. This bill not only got introduced in both chambers, it did so with bi-partisan support. That’s bi-partisan and bicameral support for those of us who talk in legislative speak, and for Leah, a sign of good things to come.

“I am so excited and I feel extremely encouraged,” she said. “And I’m so happy that we’re going to pass this and other survivors aren’t going to have to go through what I went through and that they’ll be able to get access to care when they present at the hospital.”

RELATED: 11 years after a rape in Seattle, DNA leads to charges

Senator Murray said this would not have happened if Leah hadn’t worked tirelessly — almost immediately after she was raped — to fight for others in her situation.

“I feel good,” Leah said. “I’m just happy that I had the opportunity to do this work and I think that in a lot of ways it is a privilege and is due to my privilege. I know that a lot of people don’t have the privileges that I have and it’s important for me to use who I am to do the most good that I can.”

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