By Matt Young, WV Press Association
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – Sexual assault evidence-processing was the main the topic of discussion during this week’s Joint Committee on Health’s final interim meeting before the start of the 2023 Regular Legislative Session.
Nancy Hoffman with the W.Va. Foundation for Rape Information and Services (WVFRIS) was the day’s first presenter, telling the committee, “In our state, one in six women, and one in 22 men will be the victim of a forcible attempted or completed sexual assault in their lifetime. That is higher than many other states; such as New York, Texas and Pennsylvania.”
According to Hoffman, West Virginia’s female residents are more likely to encounter a sexual assault experience than they are to survive a cancer diagnosis. Additionally, Hoffman said that “forcible sex offenses are the number one reason that someone is incarcerated in our state’s prisons,” before noting that W.Va. spends more than $42 million annually housing inmates convicted of sex crimes.
In 2014, Hoffman said, the W.Va. Legislature created the Sexual Assault Forensic Exam (SAFE) Commission to address concerns surrounding forensic evidence. Ensuring access to exams and proper collection procedures are followed, as well as confirming that each exam kit is properly tested are among the responsibilities of the SAFE Commission.
“We started out of the gate really strong,” Hoffman said. “We created the Sexual Assault Kit initiative, and that has a major impact in assuring the testing of kits.”
However, as Hoffman explained, it was recently found that – since 2015 – nearly 2,600 completed kits had not been forwarded to the state forensics lab for testing.
“We’re not talking about kits that were backlogged, we’re talking about kits that never made it to the crime lab,” Hoffman said, before adding that 980 DNA profiles out of the nearly 2,600 test kits were entered into the National DNA database. “Subsequently, to date, 376 matches were found in the database,” Hoffman noted.
“This is why evidence needs to be collected, and it needs to be collected properly – and it needs to be tested once it’s collected,” Hoffman said.
“Direct Submission” legislation was passed in 2020, requiring that hospitals deliver testing kits to the state forensics lab immediately and directly after collection. According to Hoffman, this has led to a 50% increase in collection rates from 2012 through 2021.
A significant issue which surrounds the collection and processing of testing kits is the cost involved. Federal regulations relieve sexual assault victims from the financial burdens associated with evidence collection. However, the cost of testing remains substantial for medical providers. The “Forensic Exam Fund,” established in 1996 by the state legislature, reimburses hospitals at a flat rate of $350 per test to assist with the costs. Unfortunately, according to Hoffman, while $350 was appropriate in 1996, it is far less so in 2023.
W.Va. State Police Forensic Scientist David Miller then spoke briefly regarding the importance of the Direct Submission legislation, saying, “We now see 200 more kits a year in our laboratory than we did just a few years ago. Once it’s collected, and the victim says, ‘I want this investigated by law enforcement,’ it comes directly to our laboratory. It doesn’t go to an officer or a prosecutor to make a decision. It comes directly to us and we test it.”
According to Miller, “education and training of the person who collected the kit” remains an obstacle, as does “limited access to the forensic exam.” Miller then reiterated Hoffman’s concerns regarding the $350 “reimbursement rate to the facility from the forensic medical examination fund.”
While all hospitals can administer a sexual assault test kit, there are only three medical facilities in West Virginia that provide 24/7 Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) care – all of which are in the northern part of the state. According to Miller, this can potentially create the need for a victim to travel several hours to receive the appropriate care.
“It is not unusual for me to see sexual assault kits where the incident occurred in the southern part of the state, and I’ve seen travel all the way to Ruby Hospital (Morgantown) to have a kit collected,” Miller noted. “If a person is not trained in how to collect a kit and what to do with it, and they have a person travel from the southern part of the state, I’m going to receive a kit from Ruby Hospital for an assault that happened in Logan County.”
“If that person doesn’t properly document the law enforcement officer who is investigating that case – which happens quite frequently – I now have a kit with potential DNA results in it, and no investigating officer to send the results to,” Miller added.
Also appearing before the committee was Findhelp CEO Erine Gray, who provided a brief demonstration of findhelp.org. Findhelp.org is a free-to-use website which connects users to support in the form of “financial assistance, food pantries, medical care, and other free or reduced-cost help.”