Victim advocates fight SC shortage of nurses trained to conduct rape kits

Updated: Jan. 4, 2021 at 5:00 PM EST
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A shortage of nurses and doctors in South Carolina who are specially trained to conduct forensic exams on sexual assault survivors has some victim advocates worried that rapists are going unpunished because survivors don’t have access to the resources they need to pursue justice.

A mapped database of data collected from 65 hospitals across the state details which hospitals employee forensic nurse examiners or sexual assault nurse examiners who are certified and trained to collect the critical evidence left behind after a sexual assault.

Many stakeholders are trying to improve the care survivors receive. A state task force is working to find what gaps remain, and what’s been made clear is that more sexual assault nurse examiners are needed across the state.

These nurses are specially trained to collect and preserve the valuable evidence that could be used to prosecute a rapist, but the resource is not available at every hospital.

Because of this, some advocates worry a lack of SANEs in South Carolina could discourage survivors from ever reporting their attacks.

Overall, there are only about 122 forensic nurse examiners or sexual assault nurse examiners working across more than 65 hospitals in South Carolina, and some of them work on regional teams that cover several hospitals at a time.

In the Lowcountry, the Medical University of South Carolina is the closest hospital with a 24/7 team of nurses and doctors who are able to properly conduct a rape kit, and MUSC has more resources than most hospitals in the state.

MUSC’s team is made up of 22 SANEs. Twelve are trained to work with adult patients, 10 have special training for children, two others are still in training, and hospital officials say they are working to add others.

However, other regional hospitals in the tri-county area, like Trident Medical Center and Roper St. Francis, have zero FNEs or SANEs. If a sex assault survivor shows up at one of their doors, they are told MUSC is the only hospital in the area that can complete their forensic exams.

“We have a great team we work with at MUSC, but to get access to them, you have to drive to MUSC,” People Against Rape Interim Executive Director Djuanna Brockington said. “For someone who is in a rural area or rural Dorchester County, rural Berkeley County that may be a deterrent to take that trek for them.”

Trident Medical officials say they are developing plans to recruit and train nurses who want to become Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners.

“This would be an important expansion of our emergency services in the North Charleston area and a significant community care improvement to offer this service locally,” the hospital said in a statement.

Roper St. Francis hospital officials said they can page a SANE from MUSC 24/7.

“There is always one on call and Roper hospitals can page that person 24/7 and transfer the patients there for the exam for specimen collection,” a statement read.

The specialized training SANEs undergo teaches them how to properly collect and document evidence of a sexual assault and can prepare them to testify in court on behalf of the evidence they collected.

“Case law has repeatedly found SANE-collected kits to be among the strongest courtroom evidence in supporting victim testimony, and SANE nurses themselves have been noted to be very credible witnesses,” according to a position statement from the International Association of Forensic Nurses. “Sexual assault patients regularly present to the emergency care setting for treatment following their traumatic event. In the past, they have often been treated by emergency department personnel who lacked training in medical forensic evidence collection, and those with training often did not perform exams frequently enough to maintain proficiency and competency. The result was poor documentation and improper evidence collection.”

Last year, the Palmetto State became just the third in the country to survey health care systems, law enforcement and advocates about how they handle sexual assaults. However, many hospitals failed to answer.

“It would be ideal that we would be able to have hospitals, they would know, when I go there I’m going to be able to get an examine done and not be turned away,” said South Carolina Forensic Examiner Program Coordinator Amanda Brown. “You’re already vulnerable, already scared, and here you are having to go into the ER and tell your story…and you know, it can be traumatizing. You don’t want to re-traumatize them.”

Brown believes more state oversight is needed to increase the number of SANEs in South Carolina and help survivors seek justice against their attackers.

“You want to have somebody that is specifically trained, or you know, can take that trauma informed approach that knows what they’re doing, or at least has some experience and not just reading the instructions out of the box,” Brown said. “You only have one shot because once that evidence is gone, it’s gone.”

Lawmakers have pushed for years for better laws to track rape kits and address a backlog of untested kits. But for most survivors, the reforms don’t go far enough.

“So many people are getting away with rape because they don’t have the facilities and the resources,” one sexual assault survivor, who we will refer to as “Jane” to protect her identity, said.

Her attacker, Brandon Rickborn, pleaded guilty to third degree criminal sexual conduct, according to the Charleston County Solicitor’s Office. Jane believes the evidence in her rape kit was the key to his conviction. Rickborn was given a suspended sentence, probation, and placed on the sex offender registry.

Jane says the conviction did little to bring her closure though, but it was more justice than what another sexual assault survivor received after her own attack. The woman penned a single-page letter to Jane sharing her story and expressing her sorrow for what Jane was having to endure.

“I’m so sorry this happened to you. It didn’t have to, and it’s not your fault. You are not alone,” the letter said.

The words were penned more than a decade after the writer said she was sexually assaulted by a family friend, and she was intent on making sure there would be a different outcome for Jane.

“They dropped the charges in my case, and that’s all I could think of was going to happen with her,” the author of the letter, who did not want to be identified, said.

Jane endured the invasive yet necessary forensic exam necessary to pursue criminal charges against Rickborn.

“I don’t regret for a minute that I had to go through all that and step forward and put myself through all of that uncomfortable, painful process,” Jane said. “I am not a victim. I am now a survivor.”

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