Rape victims to gain more rights under proposed bill

If enacted, the state will pay for evidence collection.
Sunday, April 15, 2007 | 9:18 p.m. CDT; updated 8:05 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

Kelley Lucero, the outreach coordinator for the Sexual Assault Response Team of the Shelter in Columbia, once worked with a 14-year-old girl who was raped by a family friend in a small Missouri town. The first thing police asked the victim to do was take a lie detector test.

“That traumatized her almost as much (as the rape did),” Lucero said.

‘Rape kit’ cost

Forensic examinations cost between $250 and $300, said Dr. John Yanos, medical director of emergency services at University Hospital. The cost comes from the time, space and specially-trained nurses.

Missouri Senate Bill 429, which was passed in the Senate and read for the first time in the House on Thursday, would put an end to that practice — a practice that is common

outside Boone County, Lucero said — and others that make the criminal process traumatic for sexual assault and domestic violence victims.

Sponsored by Senate Leader Michael R. Gibbons, R-Kirkwood, the goal of the legislation is to increase reporting of violent and sexual crimes against women, according to a news release from the Missouri Senate.

If passed, the bill would require, among other things, that the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services cover the costs of all “rape kits” and forensic examinations instead of forcing the victim to cover the expenses or leaving it to a doctor’s discretion. Insurance and Medicaid would no longer be billed for evidence collection.

“There is no other crime in the state where the victim is charged for their own evidence collection,” said Lisa Weingarth, communications coordinator for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. “It’s really one of the great injustices in our state.”

Weingarth said she hoped the bill would be the first step toward implementation of a statewide system to ensure that victims don’t suffer the second injustice of being charged for their own exams. “(Right now) each hospital does things differently, and there is no system to make sure exams get paid for,” she said.

University Hospital has been absorbing those costs for a little over a year.

John Yanos, medical director of emergency services at University Hospital, said that the forensic examination performed on a sexual assault victim costs between $250 and $300. The “rape kit,” which contains a set of cotton swabs and envelopes used to collect DNA evidence, is provided to hospitals free by the Missouri State Highway Patrol. The cost comes from the time, space and specially trained nurses who perform the exam and administer standard precautions such as treatment for STDs and emergency contraception. Yanos said the hospital sees about two sexual assault victims each week, which adds up to a loss of more than $30,000 a year.

“It would be better for the state to pay (the costs),” Yanos said. “It would take away the financial burden from other organizations.”

Because of the lack of a statewide system, not all hospitals take care of those costs and victims can still get slapped with the bill for an emergency room visit if they have other injuries. “The problem is you are treated like an emergency room patient and get the associated cost of the visit,” Yanos said.

Lucero said she had worked with victims who have received bills as high as $2,700.

Victim advocates work to get those bills paid by the health department and the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund.

If passed, the Department of Health and Human Services would automatically pay for the forensic exam. The victim would be able to apply for other medical treatment to be paid for by the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund if their Medicaid or private health insurance doesn’t cover it.

Kim Webb, health educator for the MU Student Health Center, said victims can already ask for reimbursement from the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund but only if they file a police report. Weingarth said that a report would no longer be a requirement should the bill pass.

Cindy Allen, a sexual assault nurse examiner for the MU Student Health Center, said the center suggests that sexual assault victims go to University Hospital instead of Boone Hospital because of the lack of trained sexual assault nurses at Boone.

Lucero said the Shelter gives the same advice.

No one at Boone Hospital was available to talk about its protocol for sexual assault victims.

Whether the legislation would achieve its stated goal to increase reporting of sexual assaults is uncertain.

Boone County Sheriff’s detective Mike Stubbs, who has worked with the Shelter and sexual assault victims for more than 10 years, said he thinks the legislation will have the desired effect.

“There’s a good chance that it will make victims comfortable to report rape,” he said.

Lucero said some of the changes might increase reporting, but the immediate benefit is “that the victim comes out as intact as possible in the end.”

Last year, Lucero said, the Sexual Assault Response Team worked with 134 sexual assault victims, and 76 of those were met at the hospital. Of that number, about half reported the crime to law enforcement.

According to Missouri State Highway Patrol Uniform Crime Report statistics for 2006, there were 23 forcible rapes reported in Columbia — up from 18 in 2005.

The bill will be most beneficial to smaller communities. “It’s not going to change the way we treat victims in Boone County,” Lucero said. “We’ve already risen to that occasion.”

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