WHNT: Rape Kits: Many cities don’t have them; new proposed legislation hopes to change that

In 2014, Leah Griffin of Seattle says she was raped and went to the closest hospital for a rape kit, only to be turned away. "They looked at me and shrugged their shoulders and said, 'We don't do rape kits here,'" Griffin recounted.

Griffin says she later went to a second hospital that did administer the special examination to collect and preserve forensic evidence, but because of the delay in care, her case was never prosecuted.

There are many places around the country where access to rape kits is limited. WHNT News 19 took a look at the numbers here in Alabama.

According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses, there is personnel trained to perform rape kits across the state, including Rape Response in Florence, Athens-Limestone Hospital, and Crisis Services of North Alabama in Huntsville.

Local advocates and investigators alike say having access to rape kits is a major step in the pursuit of justice for a sexual assault survivor. Without it, Capt. Rick Archer with Decatur Police Department's Criminal Investigations Division says getting a prosecution would be significantly harder.

"Sometimes there are factors as far as the believability of victims, sometimes their stories are questioned," Capt. Archer said. "So the physical evidence we can obtain can really lend credibility to what a victim may tell us and it can really help convince a jury of what the truth is."

In fact, he says a rape kit collected in the 1980s, before DNA testing was as developed as it is today, helped convict a man in a cold case sexual assault in 2014.

"We were able to link through modern technology and modern DNA analysis evidence that was obtained in that rape kit that had been preserved for more than 15 years," he said.

Not only does a lack of access to rape kits bind the hands of investigators, it also strips those survivors of that sense of hope.

"It would give you a sense of helplessness and it would give you a sense of powerlessness as well," said Michelle Anyan,  the Rape Response Coordinator with Crisis Services of North Alabama. "For sexual assault victims, having that rape kit done is sort of like getting their power back because they have the power to put that evidence out there and that's one little thing they can do to get a prosecution."

For Griffin, she isn't done fighting even though her case was never prosecuted. Now, she's fighting for justice of a different kind, national legislation to expand access to services for survivors of sexual assault. "Essentially we have a system that requires empirical evidence from survivors of sexual assault and then denies us access to that evidence collection," said Griffin.

Following her experience, Griffin reached out to Senator Patty Murray, D-Washington, who soon discovered the problem exists nationwide.

"Not all hospitals have rape kits. Many hospitals don't have trained personnel who know what to do with a victim of sexual assault and don't realize the potential of harm if they don't deal with them correctly, both compassionately from a health care perspective and from the perspective of getting justice at the end of the day," Murray told CBS News.

A Government Accountability Office report in 2016, requested by Senator Murray, also discovered a severe lack of information surrounding the issue, as well as a shortage of resources.

The GAO report studied six states and found the number of examiners does not meet the need, especially in rural areas.

"It has caused an environment, I think, in parts of rural Alaska where, where women who have become victims just give up," said Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Murkowski says in some parts of her state, it requires a plane ride to obtain a rape examination. "So that woman who has just been violated is told, 'Don't bathe; don't change your clothes. Sit here until we can arrange for a flight out,'" detailed Murkowski. "And, it's not as if there's any helicopter access. When I say a flight out, that individual, that woman may be sitting there waiting for a day."

Murkowski is now a co-sponsor of a bill Senator Murray wrote to address the issue: The Survivors' Access to Supportive Care Act (SASCA), making the effort bipartisan.

The legislation would study the problem nationwide, since the true scope is not even known. It would also establish national standards of care for survivors of sexual assault and expand access to services, including the specialized nurses who administer rape examinations.

SASCA would require hospitals to provide information about their capacity to provide sexual assault care and would provide training grants to organizations that serve rural and tribal communities.

According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses, it's estimated only 17 to 20 percent of hospitals have sexual assault nurse examiners on staff.

"What I'm hearing from hospitals is well there's a cost," said Senator Murray. "Yeah, there's a cost. But there's a cost to every individual who is raped, sexually assaulted and doesn't get their health care and doesn't get justice."

Senator Murray believes her bill has new momentum this year, especially in the era of #MeToo. Leah Griffin, who continues to advocate for the legislation, says she'll keep working until the system changes.

"People really understand that this is a problem and it's not a controversial one. If a rape survivor goes to the hospital she shouldn't be turned away without access to evidence collection," said Griffin.

In addition to Murray and Murkowski, SASCA's current list of co-sponsors include presidential candidates Senators Kamala Harris, D-California, Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont, as well as Senators Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, Jeanne Shaheen, D-New Hampshire, Tina Smith, D-Minnesota, Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, Maggie Hassan, D-New Hampshire and Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont.

By:  Shevaun Bryan
Source: WHNT