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During an interim meeting of the Joint Committee on Health on Tuesday morning, lawmakers got an update on the state’s effort to End The Backlog of rape cases.
In 2020, the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill requiring the speedy testing and collection of rape kits after a 2015 initiative to start testing the state’s nearly 2,400 shelved rape kits.
Two representatives of the Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Commission (SAFE) updated lawmakers on various initiatives that could improve West Virginia’s method of collecting and prosecuting sex crime evidence.
Nancy Hoffman, director of the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services (WVFRIS) and Chairperson of the Sexual Assault Forensic Exam Commission provided updated statistics to the Joint Committee on Health.
“We saw in 2021, 540 kits were mailed out and 444 kits were returned, it’s never going to be at the same number because facilities have to keep some kits on hand for when a victim does come in,” Hoffman said. “But we went from 32 percent being collected to 82 percent being tested. So a huge difference in a pretty short period of time. I think it really shows that our partnership with the SAFE Commission and the legislature certainly is making a difference.”
Hoffman and fellow SAFE representative, David Miller, Forensic Central Evidence Processing Supervisor with the West Virginia State Police, told lawmakers that the remaining roadblocks in proper care and criminal proceedings stem from a shortage of trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) in combination with travel time and costs, causing long delays for the victims.
“In our state, there are only three facilities and they’re all in the northern part of the state that provide 24/7 adult and pediatric care provided by SANE-trained personnel,” Miller said. “This causes a person to have to travel potentially, if they’re sexually assaulted in one of those counties, where you can’t easily have access to a facility that will collect the kit. This is particularly a problem for pediatric patients, it is not unusual for me to see sexual assault kits where the incident occurred in the southern part of the state, Mingo and Raleigh counties in particular, I’ve seen travel all the way to Ruby Hospital to have a sex crime kit collected.”
In 1996, the West Virginia legislature created the The Forensic Medical Examination Fund to reimburse hospitals and medical facilities for the personnel and staff space to collect that evidence. Lawmakers set a flat rate of $350, and the rate has not increased in the 25 years since.
“The SAFE Commission looked at our surrounding states and learned that Pennsylvania reimbursement rate is $1,000 a kit, $1,300 in Virginia; Maryland has no cap and almost a couple thousand in Kentucky,” Miller said. “The Safety Commission recommendation therefore is to increase the reimbursement rate to medical facilities conducting exams to $1,000. And, to designate funds for examiner coordination, and training.”