We’ve all read the statistics about the dismal under-reporting of sexual assault and arrest rates in rape cases. Some reports show that as many as 60% of rape and sexual assault incidents are not reported to the police, and that 15 out of 16 rapists will never spend a day in jail. In Illinois, which claims some of the lowest rates of arrest in sexual assault cases, about 11 percent of rapes will lead to an arrest.
Last week, Attorney General Lisa Madigan announced a joint effort between her office and the Illinois Hospital Association to improve those numbers by strengthening a critical link in the sexual assault reporting process: the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (or SANE). I wrote about the role of SANEs last year, when Ms. Madigan’s office announced the Illinois Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Act to improve processing of rape kits, which are taken by SANEs when victims report to a hospital.
It’s delicate, precise, emotional work, and can make a world of difference for a rape victim in the traumatic moments immediately following an attack, as well as the correct and accurate collection of evidence that hides on a survivor’s body for only so limited a time. SANEs are certified after a period of training, and are specially trained to testify in court as to the forensic evidence of a sexual assault. They also receive training on examining child survivors; about 80 percent of the sex offenders in Illinois’ registry committed a crime against a child.
But only two Illinois hospitals have SANE programs operating 24 hours a day (Advocate South Suburban Hospital in Hazel Crest and Carle Foundation Hospital in Urbana), which means that a rape victim is not guaranteed the presence or availability of one of these trained professionals. Since 2003, 650 nurses have been certified under a Madigan-created training program, but only 75 are fully practicing SANE nurses. (When asked why only about 12 percent of these nurses are practicing as SANEs, the AG’s office simply responded, “The attorney general and the Illinois Hospital Association are partnering to undertake aggressive efforts needed to increase the numbers.”)
“We must do more to encourage sexual assault survivors to come forward,” Ms. Madigan said at a press conference last week. “By putting more SANE nurses on duty, we can assure survivors that they will receive compassionate and medically appropriate care that will also provide critical evidence to law enforcement to pursue justice.”
The new effort promises to double the number of SANE nurses practicing in Illinois hospitals, from 75 to 150, and to implement a SANE program in each of Illinois’ 11 trauma regions by fall of 2012. The result? An on-call SANE nurse will be available 24/7 to aid survivors of sexual assault, no matter at which hospital they arrive. Staffing of SANEs will be distributed according to an individual hospital’s needs, ensuring the round-the-clock availability of a SANE.
According to a representative from AG Madigan’s office, the SANE training program through the Office of the Attorney General is funded through a Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) grant, meaning there is no cost to hospitals or trainees. In addition, “There is a state program, called the IL Sexual Assault Program, which reimburses hospitals 100 percent of the billed cost of the medical-forensic examination for uninsured patients. Hospitals can also apply for grant monies to fund the SANE program staffing and other needs.” For patients who have either private health insurance or Medicaid, those agencies are billed for examinations following sexual assaults.
Ensuring that rape kits are collected by trained SANEs, which not only preserves the integrity of evidence but also creates a safe space for survivors, will go a long way toward inching Illinois’ reporting and arrest rates in the right direction, especially when combined with the Illinois Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Act. It’s only when every link in the chain is functioning fully and efficiently that we’ll see the progress we need.