Three years ago, in April, Leah Griffin says she was raped by a man who slipped a Xanax in her drink at a bar. Though her memory of the night is hazy, she remembers calling her friend to pick her up at an intersection in the middle of the night. She was screaming, crying, and bleeding. She knew that she had been sexually assaulted, but could remember little else. At home, after she passed what appeared to be a blood clot, she drove to the Swedish Medical Center in Ballard, Washington and asked for a rape kit so she could begin the long process of putting her rapist behind bars. But that never happened.
“When I first walked into the emergency room, I was told that they didn’t do rape kits over there and that I would have to go to Harborview Medical Center, which is 45 minutes or an hour away, depending on traffic, or I could take an ambulance at my own expense,” she told Jezebel. “I couldn’t afford that and I couldn’t drive myself, because I was not in a fit capacity to drive myself, and so they just shrugged their shoulders at me.” In 2015, the director of the Swedish Medical Center’s emergency room’s department confirmed to KING5 that the “protocol for sexual assault victims was to refer patients to Harborview for care should the patient wish to do so.”
Griffin went home and slowly attempted to piece together the events of the past 24 hours, with the help of her friend. She spent all day deliberating—what if the second hospital she visited turned her away, too? Finally, in the middle of the night, she drove to Harborview, where she met with a registered nurse trained in administering medical forensic care of sexual assault survivors, known as a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE).
In 2015, prosecutors told Griffin that there was not enough evidence to prove “that she did not consent to sexual contact or that he should have known that she was incapable of consent,” according to the decline memo obtained from the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. Though Griffin wasn’t able to pursue a case against her alleged rapist, she has channeled her anger into exposing a gap in the healthcare and justice system that reveals yet another way this country fails the one in five women and one in 71 men who will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives.
In September 2014, Griffin met with Democratic Senator Patty Murray’s staffers in Seattle and told them about her experience. “They focused on the hospital issue,” said Griffin. “The staff was baffled that ERs don’t have rape kits available, because everyone just assumes that that’s something that exists.” Sen. Murray requested a survey from the Washington State Hospital Association, which found that its hospitals struggled to maintain SANEs on staff, and a majority of them had to turn patients away, sending them to other hospitals—as in Griffin’s case.
Murray and five other senators also requested a federal audit by the the Government Accountability Office, which similarly found a shortage of SANEs in hospitals across the country, especially in rural areas, insufficient data on SANEs, and an absence of federal guidelines around access and qualifications of trained hospital staff. Sally Laskey, CEO of the International Association of Forensic Nurses, told Seattle Weekly that only “about 17 percent” of emergency rooms across the country are staffed with SANEs.
As a result, survivors are forced to endure extended emotional trauma, may risking losing the evidence required by prosecution, and may face additional costs to coordinate another hospital visit. And even when a victim is finally offered a rape kit, depending on the city or state, there’s a good chance it will never get tested.
Thanks in part to Griffin’s advocacy and work with state Rep. Tina Orwall, Washington has since passed several reforms regarding rape kits including, in 2016, becoming the first state to pass a law creating a statewide rape kit tracking system. But federal law still lags behind. Last May, in response to the GAO’s findings, Murray introduced the Survivors’ Access to Supportive Care Act with Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Claire McCaskill (D-MO), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Barbara Boxer (D-CA). SASCA would ask the GAO to survey each state to determine the specific needs and standards of care for sexual assault examinations, create a federal guideline and training program around sexual assault health care (which currently does not exist), a federal grant to expand training and care offered at hospitals across the country, require colleges to educate students about sexual assault examination services, and build a resource center for hospitals receiving federal funding.
“This bill does a lot to make this experience better for people in the future,” Griffin said. “The SANE nurse that I encountered was the best person I encountered in the whole process, and making that person available to more survivors is going to make a big difference to the experience of people who are affected by sexual assault.”
But the bill went nowhere, and now Sen. Murray is planning to reintroduce it this year. “We haven’t [re]introduced it yet, just given everything that’s going on in the healthcare space,” said a spokesperson from Murray’s office. “We’ve been wanting to introduce it for a while, but we wanted to wait until we could get more of our members focused on it and right now everyone’s attention in healthcare is, obviously, Trumpcare.”
This time around, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) is expected to introduce a companion bill of the same name in the House, where the Bipartisan Task Force to End Sexual Violence has held hearings on rape kit backlogs and access to sexual assault nurse examiners.
In June, Griffin went to Washington DC to meet with politicians, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris, and the staffers of several Republican senators and congressmen. “Everyone was really positive,” she said. “There wasn’t any Republican or Democrat who said no outright and I was asking for bipartisan co-sponsorship. We don’t have that quite yet, but we’re hoping to get that soon.”
Although the bill floundered last year, and this administration is slowly chipping away at sexual assault protections under Title IX, Griffin is hopeful the bill will go farther the second time around. “I think there’s definitely a shot,” she said. “This isn’t a partisan issue, at all. This is absolutely absurd and intolerable, and everyone can agree.”
“When we first submitted [the bill],” Griffin said, “there wasn’t this groundswell of activism. Now is different because we have an opportunity to talk about this issue. That’s what’s going to make a difference this time, is individual people making phone calls.”
She likened it to police sending victims of a burglary to another precinct because they don’t have fingerprint kits to collect evidence. “How can we prosecute rapists in a country where we demand empirical evidence from survivors, but limit their access to that empirical evidence? I think that that’s a standard that everyone would agree with.”