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State leaders credit investigative journalism for drawing attention to sexual assault nurse shortage


RALEIGH — Federal and state officials gathered Thursday to provide an update on North Carolina’s efforts to test thousands of backlogged rape kits and how to address the state’s shortage of sexual assault nurse examiners.

Many also lauded Carolina Public Press’ coverage of the lack of SANE nurses in rural areas, after which state and federal lawmakers sought funding to train more SANE nurses in North Carolina and across the country.

Among the speakers at the N.C. Department of Justice in Raleigh was a woman named Linda, who nearly three decades ago was left to die in the woods after a brutal assault by three men.

“I am a 29-year survivor of sexual assault, kidnapping and attempted murder,” Linda said. 

“I would like to express my gratitude to Carolina Public Press for their responsible, life-changing journalism. Your coverage of sexual assault nurse examiners last year inspired a new healer. United States Rep. Deborah Ross is a healer in my mind, is someone that respects victims of sexual assault.”

She called SANE nurses “front-line healers” who are essential to a victim’s recovery.

“We require both state and federal funding to achieve our goals for victims to heal into healthy survivors,” said Linda, who is identified by her first name alone to protect her identity as a sexual assault survivor.

Ross said she was inspired by CPP’s coverage of the SANE nurse shortage in her home state. She worked toward a federal, bipartisan solution to help pay for training and retention. Her legislation, part of a bill signed by President Joe Biden last month, provides $30 million per year to train and retain SANE nurses in rural and tribal communities for years to come.

“We owe it to survivors, who have endured unspeakable trauma, to ensure that they receive the care they deserve and are able to seek justice,” Ross said.

The measure was tucked inside the bill that reauthorized the Violence Against Women Act, which provides support for victims to miss work to go to court, provides child care and support to assault victims with costs related to the crime committed against them, said Monika Johnson-Hostler, executive director for N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

She thanked Carolina Public Press and lead investigative reporter Kate Martin for her continued in-depth coverage of sexual assault.

“One of the things that we haven’t said, that Kate’s done a great job of, is ensuring that medical institutions acknowledge the important role that they have ensuring that once we have these SANE nurses that we’re actually able to keep them in those hospitals,” Johnson-Hostler said.

Martin surveyed 130 hospitals throughout the state for her investigation “Finding Nurses,” which showed there are few SANE nurses in rural areas and that no state agency tracks where they work.

This lack of information means rape survivors typically find out if a hospital has a SANE nurse once they arrive at an emergency room. In rural areas, the hospital with the nearest SANE nurse can be hours away.

Attorney General Josh Stein also provided an update on the state’s efforts to test untested rape kits. In 2019, there were more than 16,000 of them, the most of any state in the nation.

Of those tested so far, there have been at least 63 arrests for 91 separate assaults, Stein said Thursday at the N.C. Department of Justice in Raleigh.

“That means that there are 91 victims or 91 victim families that are experiencing some sense of closure, some sense of relief in the knowledge that the system is working on their behalf,” Stein said

Some cases were decades old and involved serial rapists.

“The job is not done, and we will not stop until it is,” Stein said. “But before scientists can test the DNA, the evidence must first be collected.” 

Earlier this month, Stein announced a $2 million initiative to train 50 SANE nurses from a variety of areas throughout the state. Since hospitals are not required to hire SANE nurses, Stein said he wanted to use federal grant money to train nurses already working in those communities.

“Even in Charlotte, a survivor told me about her experience in an emergency department at a major hospital where she waited for five hours for that one hospital’s SANE nurse to be freed up because the nurse was working on another case,” Stein said. 

“When it’s completed at the end of the summer, we will come closer to the point where every hospital system in North Carolina has a specially trained SANE nurse.”

State lawmakers approved a $125,000 SANE nurse training pilot program in Cumberland County. State legislators are likely to consider other reforms once the General Assembly convenes next month.

The Violence Against Women Act also includes resources for domestic violence programs. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, domestic violence increased by 25%-33%, Ross said.

There is “an increase in high-lethality domestic violence across our state,” said Nisha Williams, legal director for N.C. Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

“We appreciate the ways that decision-makers can learn with us about how to use policy to improve the safety of our families and communities in an unpredictable time.”

Carolina Public Press is an independent, in-depth and investigative nonprofit news service for North Carolina.

Cumberland, Congress, sexual assault, SANE nurses, domestic violence