Virginia Lawmakers Say Shortage of Sexual Assault Nurses Barrier to Justice

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) – A critical shortage of sexual assault nurses may prevent some victims from seeking justice. It’s a problem the General Assembly is trying to resolve in the 2022 session, but funding is still in question.

Debbie Smith, a survivor and founder of HEART, said the help of a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) after her assault in 1989 would have made a huge difference.

“Most people didn’t even know what they were at the time,” Smith said. “These nurses are not only trained in finding forensic evidence, but they are also trained in how to deal with the immediate emotional needs of a sexual assault victim, and that is so critical.”

Smith said the doctor who performed her exam was unfamiliar with the process and the repetitive questions from the nurses added to her trauma.

“I needed to feel safe and I needed to feel raw and I didn’t really feel those things,” Smith said. “I kept asking myself, is it really worth all that?”

Ultimately, the evidence gathered that day put Smith’s attacker behind bars, but many victims never have that chance.

“A barrier to timely care can be the difference between reporting or giving up,” said delegate Karrie Delaney.

Currently, only 9 of Virginia’s 95 counties have centers that provide access to SANEs, and most do so only on a part-time basis.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), some survivors are forced to travel to multiple hospitals and wait up to 12 hours for a medical examination. During this time, defenders say they cannot eat, drink or change clothes to ensure the evidence can be documented.

“A lot of these patients are just choosing not to receive services and do nothing because they don’t have the time,” said April Bennett, the only SANE serving a clinic in southwestern Virginia.

Bennett spoke alongside lawmakers, prosecutors and lawyers at a press conference Wednesday to draw attention to ongoing reforms in the General Assembly.

A bill would allow nurses to testify remotely in certain legal proceedings.

“Bringing a nurse to court to testify means she is unable to care for survivors during this time. It’s also a deterrent for hospitals to run a SANE program because they have to pay nurses to go to court and wait to testify,” said Erin Earp, Senior Legislative Policy Advisor for RAINN.

Earp said more funding is needed to ensure existing programs remain open and to expand access across the state.

Another bill would create a dedicated funding stream for SANEs within the Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Victim Fund. Earp said an ongoing source of funding — rather than just one-time funding — is essential to solving the problem.

As it stands, the House budget allocates $1.4 million to the fund over each of the next two years, but not specifically for SANEs. The Senate budget allocates $500,000 over each of the next two years specifically for SANEs. Lawmakers will need to reach a consensus before a final amount is decided.

Delegate Delaney said implementing these measures is only the “tip of the iceberg”.

Bennett said there’s still a lot of work to be done to address shortages and reduce pressure on clinics that are stretched thin.

“It’s something I love doing and that’s why I do it, but working 160 hours a week isn’t sustainable and it’s not a best practice for our patients,” said Bennett.

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