Inova Fairfax Hospital announced a $559,192 federal grant on June 1 to help support four full-time and two part-time Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, a move elected officials and medical professionals are hailing as a monumental asset for local victims of sexual abuse.
The money will go INOVA’s Ewing Forensic Assessment and Consultation Teams (FACT), the only center of its kind serving Northern Virginia. The team previously only had part-time, on-call nurses. With this staff increase, victims will have additional resources in the immediate aftermath of an attack as well as shorter wait times for treatment and forensic testing.
“It’s just huge. Every time my phone rang at night and I knew we didn’t have someone on, my heart just sank,” said FACT Director Mary Hale. “Sometimes we get called or get paged directly by a patient, which means I’m on the phone directly with the victim trying to explain to them what their current options are in that moment, and it just wasn’t acceptable.”
Before the grant, sexual assault victims in any Northern Virginia jurisdiction, including Loudoun, may have had to wait up to 12 hours for a Sexual Assault Nurse Exam (SANE), a critical step in persevering incriminating evidence for law enforcement to use in a legal case against the attacker. Experts estimate that 70 percent of sexual assault cases not related to domestic incidents are committed by repeat offenders, adding extra importance to catching perpetrators before they commit another crime. The Fairfax facility treated 89 victims in March of this year alone, and last week had 11 in one 24-hour period.
“We had to fill this gap,” said state Sen. Barbara Favola (D-31), whose district includes parts of Loudoun County. “It is such an important piece because if they don’t have that exam, there is no medical evidence to prosecute.”
That doesn’t include many more victims who never seek help in the first place. Many are so traumatized following their attack they can’t bare dealing with law enforcement officers or medical professionals, Favola said. If victims believe they’ll have long waits ahead of their exam it further limits the chance they’ll come forward.
Favola, the chair of the General Assembly’s Advisory Committee on Sexual and Domestic Violence, patroned SB 1501 in this year’s legislative session, an act that requires law enforcement to inform a survivor that a DNA kit has been made. The survivor can then decide if they want their evidence to be used should authorities identify a repeat offender.
“If law enforcement then gives a piece of information that the DNA kit has been associated with other sexual assaults, it may give them the courage to go forward and prosecute,” Favola said. “It becomes a powerful case when there’s two or three survivors.”
Combined with HB 2127, an act patroned by Del. Mark Levine (D-45) that requires law enforcement agencies to keep evidence kits until the victim is at least 28 and for as many years as the victim requests after that, lawmakers are confident these actions will help prevent future sexual assaults.
In the meantime, medical professionals said they’re ecstatic about the increased funding for their current services. Hale said the new positions will not only help expedite the testing process and enhance outreach, it will also help attract additional on-call nurses to supplement the current full-time staff.
Before the grant, the FACT team was composed entirely of on-call nurses that had full-time employment outside the unit. Hale estimates at Inova Fairfax it would take 20 on-call nurses to provide necessary 24-7 coverage for all victims. After consulting with veteran SANE nurses, Hale said she knew the department needed full-time staff in order to meet the community’s needs.
She spearheaded a proposal to secure full-time staffing starting in July 2016 by pursuing a grant from the federal Victim of Crime Act fund and partnering with area elected officials to obtain it. Hale said many politicians in the region falsely assumed a program of that nature was already being funded locally, but after explaining the actual situation, she said members of both parties quickly came to support efforts to receive the grant. With assistance from Arlington County Supervisor Katie Cristol, Hale’s team secured signatures on behalf of the grant from 25 elected officials in just four days.
With a plan laid out, the federal government worked with the Virginia government to designate the money on behalf of the Fairfax FACT team. Though the grant only funds the expanded workforce for two years, Hale and her staff believe donors, politicians and the community will quickly see the program’s benefits and provide the necessary support in the future.
She said the impact on these victims is too great not to.
“When that letter showed up in my mail box… I sat there and cried,” Hale said. “This is everything. This is everything.”