Click here to read the story online at ABC2 - WMAR Baltimore.
By Joce Sterman
When a person is sexually assaulted, a clock starts ticking for evidence collection.
But if survivors want to build a case against their attacker, they've got to go to a hospital and not just any one will do. ABC2 Investigators found the system for victims of sexual assault in Maryland is filled with roadblocks that may allow some perpetrators to go free, simply because the people they’ve attacked may choose not to move forward.
For Kate Rush-Cook, this past summer was an anniversary. There was no reason to celebrate, but she had to look back to August 1993.
"I was just having fun with my friends that summer. And that girl died that night. And I became the person that I am now," Rush-Cook said.
At this moment, Rush-Cook is a storyteller, a source of strength and a rape survivor. She tells ABC2 in that summer of 1993, "I ended up being kidnapped by him, taken to a second location and repeatedly raped. And I was let go. He eventually let me go."
Rush-Cook talks about that night in 1993 as a way to let her experience go, pulling her grief down like a box she takes off the shelf now and again. Kate said that while the rape itself was traumatic, the exam that followed was no better.
"It's a humiliating process,” Rush-Cook said, “You are treated as a crime scene because essentially that's what your body is. That's where the evidence is."
And collecting that evidence piece by piece is what it takes to pursue a case. You can consider it a victim's personal version of CSI. But the problem that confronts some who choose to get a forensic exam is real life Hollywood drama.
Lisae Jordan is the Executive Director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
“Not to be graphic, but we've all been on the tables," she said. "Think about what that means [for victims]. You're going to get evidence collected, but you actually have to go to the right hospital."
There is a difference between right and wrong for rape survivors in Maryland. The right hospitals, in this case, provide forensic exams. The wrong ones, don’t. And Jordan said some victims find that out the hard way.
“A woman had been brutally assaulted. She showed up at the wrong hospital and she had a pelvic exam and she had medical treatment but she didn't realize she wasn't getting a forensic exam, so evidence was not collected and the case was not prosecuted," Jordan explained.
A rape victim named Monica we spoke to has lived a version of the worst case scenarios Jordan detailed for us.
“The whole hospital situation was shocking because I was sitting there traumatized and nobody was helping me," she said.
Monica said she was attacked in 2012. She said she didn’t know where to go, so she ended up waiting hours in a Maryland hospital, never getting the forensic exam she needed. Eventually, Monica said she went to a DC hospital, the day after her rape.
"If someone comes in for a rape kit or someone comes in for anything at a hospital,” she said. “They need to be seen."
But that’s not how the system works in Maryland.
For adult victims, only one hospital in Baltimore City and generally only one hospital in each county is designated as a S.A.F.E. hospital, with specially trained sexual assault forensic examiners. Those examiners are nurses who also work as de facto detectives, collecting & photographing evidence.
Experts said emergency rooms elsewhere, even those considered top notch, aren't equipped with the dedicated staff and equipment to do these specific exams. As a result, victims may be transported to another facility or simply sent on their way, opening victims up to potentially bail on the exam altogether.
Montgomery County Del. Ariana Kelly believes the system for survivors in Maryland is broken.
"I think it's shocking to people when they realize not every hospital is providing these services," Kelly said.
But Kelly wants them to. A rape survivor herself, she's proposed a bill that would require any hospital that offers emergency services, to also provide forensic exams.
"The last thing we need to be doing is creating a system that ends up punishing a victim of a crime or putting a burden on the victim of a crime to get the healthcare and medical services they need," Kelly said.
But services for survivors are different depending on which SAFE hospital a victim ends up in. Some do the exams right in the ER, while others like GBMC have a designated suite that provides privacy, comfort and even clothes for victims as they go through an invasive exam with law enforcement standards.
Forensic nurse examiner Linda Kelly is the SAFE coordinator at GBMC. She considers its program, which is labeled a Center of Excellence, a model for how survivors of sexual trauma should be treated. And she's worried if every hospital is asked to do forensic exams, quality for victims may suffer.
"I think it is a naive view and I think what's happening is folks who are not doing this work are missing the unintended consequences of taking such a broad brush approach," Kelly said.
Linda Kelly brings up potential ER wait times for victims and a lack of privacy for their exams. She also questions the potential for different protocols and whether cases could be jeopardized if evidence isn't properly collected. It's an issue prosecutors like Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg Bernstein say needs to be considered with this kind of bill. He tells ABC2, “If you are going to go down that road, you just need to make sure that whoever is doing the examinations are in fact, properly trained."
But those on both sides of the issue agree training is already an issue, as is recruitment and retention of forensic nurse examiners. Some designated SAFE hospitals struggle to staff their programs, which means they can’t supply an on-call nurse for victims 24-7.
GBMC has a large pool of forensic nurse examiners, so they’re able to respond to calls for exams no matter when they’re needed. But we found some programs, including those at Anne Arundel Medical Center and Baltimore Washington Medical Center, do not have enough staff to provide exams 24-7. As a result, victims who go there for an exam may be transported to another facility, depending on when they arrive.
For Kate Rush-Cook, a survivor who has been through the forensic exam, the idea of bouncing a victim from place to place is horrific. She says, “That could be devastating, absolutely devastating."
Kelly said her bill would put pressure on hospitals to build a system so each one is ready for a victim, any time of day or night. Her proposed legislation doesn’t spell out the method, so hospitals could either train their own forensic examiners or work out a plan where forensic nurse examiners move from facility to facility. The “have nurse, will travel” method is something hospitals in New Jersey already do.
Kelly’s bill will be heard during a hearing in Annapolis Friday. According to Lisae Jordan, on Wednesday, members of the Maryland Women’s Caucus voted to make Kelly’s bill a priority.