Interior Health making rape kits more accessible, but where? | iNFOnews



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November 11, 2022 – 4:28 PM

When a young Merritt woman was raped by a close friend two years ago, she did everything she was supposed to do: She told a friend who took her to the local hospital within hours of the sexual assault.

But there was one big problem: they were told the Nicola Valley Hospital didn’t have any rape kits — evidence collection crucial to proving a case in court. Instead, barely conscious, she had to go to Kamloops, another hour away, to be examined.

It was the second known case in recent years of women who were sexually assaulted attending Interior Health hospitals only to find they couldn’t help and had to go elsewhere.

It seems simple enough to store the basic materials — and it is. Interior Health says availability of the so-called rape kits isn’t the issue — it’s finding staff with the skills to use them properly.

“The kits are made available at sites where we have trained examiners to conduct the exam,” Tracy Scott, registered nurse with Interior Health, said.

Although Scott couldn’t speak for this woman’s experience specifically, she said it’s not true that an Interior Health hospital wouldn’t have access to a kit.

READ MORE: Merritt man guilty after rape of longtime friend

“I know the issue is never retrieving a kit. It’s about having a highly trained, skilled examiner to conduct the examination,” she said. The 40-hour training course isn’t included in regular nursing or physician schooling, so practitioners get additional schooling to both learn a trauma-informed approach with survivors and how to handle the forensic evidence kits, along with taking legal statements that may be used in court.

She couldn’t say which emergency departments in the Interior Health region are able to use sexual assault evidence kits, but the health authority is trying to make them more accessible. They’re more difficult to come by at rural emergency rooms, but the challenge is whether or not a physician or a nurse is qualified to actually use it.

At larger hospitals, like Royal Inland, the kits would be kept within the building and are ready to use when needed. Smaller emergency departments may have to request the kits from an RCMP detachment or use other medical equipment available in the building.

Royal Inland has an on-call list of healthcare workers who are qualified to do the exams, but Scott couldn’t say how many people are on that list.

Whether it’s the kit or it’s the staff that’s not available, the end result is still the same — the victim must go to another, often more urban, hospital for an evidence kit.

In 2021, SheMatters, a Canadian advocacy group for sexual assault survivors, conducted a study of Canadian hospitals to assess where sexual assault evidence kits are available.

It found 70% of B.C. hospitals had kits available in-house, while the remaining either require RCMP to deliver them, refused to answer, or simply do not make them available.

B.C. is better off than all other provinces. In Ontario, 61% of hospitals keep them in stock and just 55% did in Alberta.

READ MORE: Lack of rape kit at Penticton Regional Hospital part of a national issue

Interior Health is in the process of overhauling its procedures around sexual assault treatment, and Scott is one of three people leading that change. She specializes in sexual violence and child maltreatment with the health authority.

Scott explained that Interior Health is in the early stages of standardizing its procedures across all its emergency departments, which would align it with upcoming health ministry policies.

She said Interior Health emergency departments all provide “some level” of care for sexual assault survivors, but that doesn’t mean there will be a rape kit always available.

“The goal is to be able to provide 24/7 coverage,” she said. “Whether that means mobile services or virtual services, the important thing is that no matter where a survivor is, they will get options of care.”

This includes three options for victims. First is providing basic healthcare and emotional support to the patient. The second includes a sexual assault evidence kit that will be forwarded to police. Third, and newest to Royal Inland, is the ability to put the kit in a freezer for up to a year in case the victim decides to inform law enforcement in the future.

“(The freezer) was just implemented this year. That’s something to be rejoicing,” she said.

It’s unlikely every emergency department will have staff that is qualified to conduct the exam, but victims may be offered transportation to another hospital where it can be done, if that’s what they choose.

She likened that option to a traumatic car accident, where a person with severe injuries might be airlifted from a smaller hospital, potentially to the Lower Mainland, where there are larger hospitals with more specialized practitioners.

The new care model is expected to be implemented across Interior Health by 2024.

“This is something we’re working on daily right now,” she said. “We want to ensure the program is sustainable.”

Before September, victims could either get the exam and immediately report to RCMP or skip the exam entirely. It’s not clear which other Interior Health hospitals also have a freezer dedicated to evidence kits.

Kamloops sexual assault support worker Madeline LaMarsh said the lack of a freezer has likely been a deterrent in the past.

“A lot of survivors don’t want to give a statement to RCMP following a very invasive examination process,” she said. “It’s not as straightforward as people think.”

READ MORE: Boy, 11, shot three times in father’s shootout, chase with Merritt RCMP last year

LaMarsh is the crisis response coordinator for Kamloops Sexual Assault Counselling Centre, which has been operating for 40 years and serves Kamloops and smaller communities in the area. The organization gives free counselling to sexual assault survivors, even accompanying them at hospitals and in the courtroom.

She said the freezer at Royal Inland has been there for at least three years, but only recently came in use within the last two months. She added that emergency department wait times, along with a lack of transparency about where evidence kits can actually be used, can be another deterrent for sexual assault survivors.

“If I were to receive a call from outside our area, it would take me awhile to find out where an evidence kit is available,” she said.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Levi Landry or call 250-819-3723 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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