This article was last updated on April 16, 2022
In April 2014, Leah Griffin woke up to the realization she had been drugged and violently raped.
Griffin, then 28, was bleeding and panicked when she arrived at the the Swedish Medical Center in Ballard, WA. But instead of obtaining the care and the sexual assault forensic exam she needed, she was met with shrugged shoulders. Workers at the hospital told her, “We don’t do rape kits here.”
The staffers gave Griffin two options: She could drive herself to another hospital further away that did rape kits or they could send her in ambulance at her own expense. In crisis, she returned home. It wasn’t until hours later that she went to the other hospital for an examination, where they found she had internal injuries and did the kit.
In the end, prosecutors declined to bring charges because there was a delay in the care she obtained and they didn’t consider the evidence strong enough. “I was furious when this happened,” Griffin told Refinery29. “I couldn’t believe that we have a justice system that demands empirical evidence from survivors of sexual assault and then denies access to that evidence collection.”
Griffin is not alone in her experience. According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses, only 17% of hospitals have access to trained sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs) who will provide rape kits.
Samantha McCoy, 25, was assaulted in 2015 and she said there were no trained nurse examiners in the rural Indiana town she lived at the time.
“The police had accompanied me to the hospital after I had made the report of rape. I had hopes that things would go smoothly and that I was in professionals hands,” she told Refinery29. “However, I have never met a more chaotic and devastating process. Evidence was lost or not properly collected and it greatly impacted the criminal case I was pursuing at the time. I genuinely believe they are a major reason why my case did not go forward. The hospital process was expensive and invasive all for it to lead to nothing.”
McCoy paid all medical expenses out of pocket because she was not aware that the state could cover them given that she was the victim of a crime. She said the experience she underwent made things worse.
“It is terribly traumatic to have to seek out any assistance after rape. As a victim, your body has been violated and the victim then has to go to a hospital, where they are photographing and prodding the same areas you were just violated in,” she said. “The damage that this does to a victim is hard to explain in words.”
“I couldn’t believe that we have a justice system that demands empirical evidence from survivors of sexual assault and then denies access to that evidence collection.”
For Griffin, the situation is not only about rape kits and access to justice.
“If a survivor presents at a hospital, are referred somewhere else, and then they don’t get there because of their trauma, they’re not getting access to STD prevention, contraceptive care, or therapy and long-term treatment,” she said.
She emphasized this issue impacts women of color and marginalized communities the most. “This problem is widespread,” Griffin said. “I was only able to get to the second hospital because I had access to transportation. Not everyone does.”
After her assault and the prosecutors’ decision not to bring charges, Griffin was a woman on a mission. She contacted anyone who would listen to her story: members of Seattle City Council, Washington state legislators, U.S. senators, the state hospital association, local journalists, the authorities.
One of the first people to respond was Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. In 2015, Murray commissioned a national report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to investigate the availability of trained sexual assault nurse examiners at the national level. The report, published in 2016, not only found a disturbing lack of trained SANEs and other flaws in the healthcare system, but also that there was barely any data on the issue to begin with.
“The problem was worse than I ever thought,” Griffin said. “There are hundreds of counties where there was zero access to rape kits. There are countless examples where people had to drive hundreds of miles in order to access evidence collection. In Alaska, there are northern villages where women would have to take two airplane rides, a minimum of 17 hours, in the clothes they were raped in, in order to get access to evidence [collection] which makes prosecuting rape virtually impossible.”
She helped Murray craft the Survivors’ Access to Supportive Care Act (SASCA) which the senator introduced in 2016, to no success. But last week, in part re-energized by the #MeToo movement, Murray and Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska re-introduced the bill. A version was also introduced in the House by Reps. Pramila Jayapal and Pete King.
Some of the steps the legislation would takes to help survivors include: Authorizing $2 million annually for state-level surveys aimed at understanding the barriers survivors face when accessing healthcare; developing a national standard of care for survivors; setting up a pilot grant program to expand medical forensic exam training and services; creating a national sexual assault taskforce; requiring hospitals to provide information about the services available to survivors; and providing specific training grants to organizations working with rural and tribal communities.
Leah Griffin and Sen. Patty Murray at the 2018 State of the Union. Photo Courtesy of Leah Griffin.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that someone would go to seek care — and justice — for sexual assault and be told ‘not here’ or ‘try next door.’ The Survivors’ Access to Supportive Care Act, will help us make sure that no longer happens to survivors across the country seeking help. SASCA takes important steps to make sure we treat sexual assault examinations as a health care priority — not an afterthought or an inconvenience,” Murray said in a statement to Refinery29. “It does this through support and guidance to hospitals and states to help make sure they are able to provide sexual assault examination services and treatment to survivors — something we know that too many locations are currently unequipped or unprepared for.”
She added: “I’m hopeful that together, with Leah and other advocates, we can continue to build bipartisan momentum for this legislation and get it signed into law.”
McKenna Williams, a 23-year-old survivor from San Diego, CA, saw firsthand the type of challenges that make it difficult for people to have access to rape kits when after she was assaulted last October.
“I was fortunate in that I had healthcare and could go to the hospital in the first place, that the police believed me immediately, and that my rape kit was processed relatively quickly,” she told Refinery29. “But so many others face far more difficult roadblocks, which is exactly why it’s so important to fix this huge flaw in our system.”
The fact that SASCA has bipartisan support is encouraging for Williams. “This bill is about providing proper care for survivors of sexual assault, but it’s also about providing access to justice for all survivors,” she said.
It is absolutely unacceptable that someone would go to seek care — and justice — for sexual assault and be told ‘not here’ or ‘try next door.’
SASCA will now go through several committees in Congress and Griffin is confident this might be a turning point for sexual assault survivors. One of the things she is doing now is encouraging constituents to call their elected officials and ask they support the legislation.
“I think people universally understand that this is an injustice,” she said. “It’s wrong to turn survivors away from hospitals. Victims of rape should have access in a non-traumatizing way to healthcare and due process.”
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