The Matanuska Susitna Borough has not had a Sexual Assault Response Team since 2005.
Doctor Donn Bennice, who heads Alaska Family Services in Palmer, told the Borough Assembly that currently, sexual assault victims from the Matanuska Valley area have to travel to an Anchorage hospital for forensic examinations. Exams that can take five or six hours, before the victims can go home. That only serves to further traumatize them. And, Bennice says, some victims are simply not reporting rape as a result:
“The numbers have gone down over the last ten years, but we also run the emergency shelter here, and we talk to the women quite frequently. And a lot of them don’t report the sexual assaults, because of having to be transported to Anchorage, because of the length of time it takes to go to Anchorage and then to sit there for the examination. So I think the numbers are actually higher than what is being actually reported. “
Bennice, and others in health and law enforcement in the Valley, want the Borough to include 200 thousand dollars in the budget for SART program operation and training. The Borough Assembly must approve the contribution.
Emily Steven’s, chief nursing officer at Mat Su Regional Medical Center, agrees with Bennice. She’s one of a group of health care professionals who are backing the request.
“We re-victimize the victims by placing them in a squad car and sending them into town to be re-processed and re-interviewed. ”
Medical professionals who testified Tuesday said emergency rooms are not designed to handle lengthy rape examinations.
Bennice says a SART team would have 3 elements: medical, which gathers forensic evidence; law enforcement, which handles transportation and investigation of non-medical evidence, and advocacy, which provides on – site support for victims and local follow-up care. That’s the job of
Alaska Family Services, which operates the only nationally accredited domestic violence / sexual assault shelter in the state.
The request for Borough funding has the backing of the cities of Palmer, Wasilla and Houston. Bert Cottle, an administrator with the city of Wasilla, told the Assembly that Wasilla police had asked for a Valley SART program, because lack of local examination in rape cases was muddying investigations:
“We’re losing cases, we’re re-victimizing the victims again by doing this. We’re losing evidence, we’re losing manpower coverage. And basically, victims are walking out of interview rooms and saying, ‘I can’t do this.’ In some cases, where the agencies are short-handed, we’re actually asking the victims to drive themselves to Anchorage. “
Cottle says representatives of all three cities have met with state officials on the issue and received more than 124 thousand dollars in this year’s state budget for the program. Cottle says the state appropriation buys initial training and equipment. He told the Assembly the Borough’s 200 thousand dollars would fund operating costs until new sources of revenue can be secured.
Bennice says the Borough’s earlier SART program ended in 2005, when the only forensic examining nurse there retired. There was no one to fill the job, then funds fell short, and eventually, the program just fell through the cracks.