Rape kit delay: lack of funding means wait for sex assault victims

Anne Davies is concerned that many hospitals, including the Cowichan District Hospital, are not fully equipped to deal with sexual assaults.

Anne Davies is concerned that many hospitals in B.C., including the Cowichan District Hospital, are not fully equipped to deal with sexual assaults.

Davies, a board member with the Hospital Sciences Association which represents thousands of health-care professionals in B.C., said that with approximately 60,000 sexual assault cases each year in the province, more needs to be done to assist the victims.

She said the fact that, like many other hospitals across B.C., CDH does not have a forensic-nurse examiner available 24/7 for sexual assault cases adds to the problem.

Island Health currently operates a mobile-forensic program on the Island, with the closest base in Nanaimo. Under the program, a forensic-specialist team is brought into CDH as required to help with cases of sexual assault.

But Davies said time is a major factor in dealing with many of the victims, and in the collection of evidence to prosecute the offenders, and the time it takes the forensic specialists to come from Nanaimo or other Island centres is counter productive.

Officials at CDH said they are doing the best they can with the resources they have.

“People, both men and women, that are the victims of sexual assault and go to the hospital are typically very traumatized, and they are told not to shower or change their clothes until the forensic team arrives with the rape kit,” Davies said.

“They are expected to just sit and wait, which can sometimes take hours. If they choose to leave the hospital before the forensic team arrives, then the evidence is never collected. That means there is almost no possibility that the crime will be prosecuted.”

Davies said there were once 23 sexual assault centres in the province that would provide forensic specialists, administer tests and collect evidence with standardized rape kits, but former premier Gordon Campbell discontinued funding for them and it has never been re-established.

“There’s no longer any community-based response in many places in the province as a result,” she said.

Vanessa Swanson, the site director at the CDH, said all the hospital’s emergency staff have received specialized training to support victims of trauma.

She said CDH currently offers to examine anyone who has experienced a sexual assault and ensure their needs are met “on a 24/7 basis”.

But Swanson acknowledged the hospital doesn’t have a full-time dedicated forensic-nurse examiner on staff to collect forensic evidence in such cases.

“This would not be financially feasible,” she said.

“Island Health recognizes that victims of sexual assault have special needs and, therefore, has created a team of specialty-trained nurses [in the mobile forensic program] who can support victims of sexual assault.”

Swanson said health officials are aware that waiting for specialized forensic expertise, or that travelling outside the community for forensic expertise, is not ideal for someone who has undergone such a traumatic experience, and that it can be a barrier for many.

“We are doing the best we can with finite resources to ensure that all residents get the service they need,” she said.

“We acknowledge that there is opportunity to improve care for sexual assault victims, and we continue to work with all our partners (to improve our care).”