Bill to expand rape exam access on Missouri governor's desk
COLUMBIA — Missouri hospitals would have to provide sexual assault exams whenever needed under a bill that Gov. Mike Parson is considering signing into law.
Creve Coeur Democratic Sen. Jill Schupp, who spearheaded the proposal, said rape victims now are sometimes turned away or must be driven to hospitals hours away to get a rape exam. DNA samples and other evidence of sexual assault gathered in rape kits can be used by law enforcement and prosecutors to catch and convict rapists.
Schupp said after being raped and then turned away from one hospital, some victims might not want to deal with an hours-long drive and decide not to get a rape kit at all.
"We lose forensic evidence in that process," she said.
Few nurses are certified to perform the exams in the state. Only 29 are listed as certified under the International Association of Forensic Nurses to perform rape kits in Missouri, although uncertified nurses might still be performing the exams.
"Ideally there would be a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) nurse on staff for each emergency room for each shift," Missouri Nurses Association State Director Heidi Lucas said. "So you're talking hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of nurses that would be needed to fill that."
But Lucas said hospitals often don't pay for nurses to get specialty training, meaning they'd need to foot the cost of a certification on their own.
There's an emotional toll to the work, too, she said. It can lead to secondary trauma and higher rates of burnout, compounding the shortage of trained nurses.
"It's very much a calling to do that kind of work," Lucas said. "You do it because you're passionate about it, and not everyone has the skill set or the emotional fortitude to be able to do that kind of work."
Under the bill Schupp worked on, the state would create a network in which specialists could walk uncertified nurses through an exam via videoconferencing. Lucas said that would allow one trained nurse to help patients throughout the state.
Lawmakers added Schupp's proposal to a bill by Republican Sen. Andrew Koenig, of Manchester. His original legislation would require the Missouri Department of Public Safety to store rape kits from victims who don't immediately choose to press charges. The kits would be kept in a central storage facility for five years.
Parson, a Republican, hasn't signaled whether he'll sign the bill into law. A spokeswoman for the governor said the measure was still under review.
Schupp asked supporters to call the governor's office to urge him to sign it.
"Let him know how important this legislation is so that their community takes care of these survivors of sexual assault," she said.
Jennifer Carter Dochler, the public policy director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said that even if the bill becomes law, the program would rely on state funding, grants or private donations. The requirement that hospitals provide rape kits, which would take effect in 2023, would only kick in if the statewide health videoconferencing service is funded and in place.
"Money is going to be a big contingency," she said.
It's unclear whether lawmakers would scrape together funding for the program, especially because many government services are facing cuts. Parson cut close to $428 million from this year's budget because of revenue shortfalls caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Regardless of whether the program is enacted, the heart of the issue — too few certified nurses in the state — remains. Lucas said nurses and hospitals need money to get necessary training and said grants could help ease that burden.