Dec. 10-- One woman was pinned to the emergency room floor by officers after her rape kit was done. Another woman was handcuffed to her hospital bed before the exam could begin. Both were sexual assault survivors who went to an Illinois emergency room seeking help. Both were arrested instead.
Police officers who respond to emergency room calls can and do jail sexual assault survivors who have warrants out for their arrest, even for offenses like unpaid parking tickets, shoplifting or failure to appear in court.
"This doesn't seem fair, nor the right time," said Sarah Layden, director of programs and public policy at survivor support nonprofit Resilience.
New legislation signed by Gov. J.B. Pritzker in July, which will go into effect in June, will change this practice. Instead of immediately executing a warrant, police officers who find a warrant for a survivor of sexual assault seeking medical care would request a waiver to avoid the arrest.
llse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, said she has heard of similar situations across the country and that it can have a chilling effect on victims coming forward.
"It sounds like the new law recognizes that and presses the pause button, so that survivors can get through this moment and deal with the crime that's committed against them," she said.
Kindra Nelson, nurse educator and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner coordinator for Sinai Health System, recounted the two examples above of patients arrested in Mount Sinai Hospital's emergency room. In the case of the woman pinned to the floor, Nelson described a hectic, dramatic scene that impacted everyone involved.
"It was traumatizing. It was traumatizing for the patient, it was traumatizing for the advocate," she recalled. "And I do think that it's traumatizing to the officer."
The officer called her supervisor, she said, in hopes of avoiding the arrest, but was told she had no alternative.
When a rape victim arrives in an emergency department, hospitals must notify police. Until the law takes effect in June, survivors should know they have options, including the option to undergo an examination and evidence collection for the rape kit, and decide to give it to police later. In other words, if someone has unpaid parking tickets, they can get treatment, secure evidence and pay those parking tickets the next day, before speaking with police.
Advocates say patients reeling from trauma often do not consider a potential warrant, or know one exists, until the police officer investigating the case makes the arrest.
Nelson said that in an emergency room, during a rape exam, nurses work to return power and control to victims after a violent crime. When an arrest happens, "it takes that power and control away from them again," she said. "It's so humiliating to this patient who has already had the most humiliating thing done to them."
A rape kit examination can take hours and includes intrusive and exhausting probing for evidence, from vaginal swabs to fingernail scrapings, as well as questions about what happened. Treatment of a patient requires such care that hospitals will soon be required to provide nurses trained specifically to treat victims. Advocates and prosecutors say care within an emergency room is key-if victims do not feel supported or taken seriously, they may abandon efforts to be treated or pursue prosecution.
While pushing for the new legislation, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault collected accounts of these arrests and gave lawmakers 13 examples throughout state emergency rooms. "Every corner of the state responded that it was happening," said general counsel Sarah Beuning. "It wasn't an isolated thing."
In the ICASA accounts, advocates cited some officers who seemed regretful because they had no choice but to make the arrests, but there were others who tried to hurry nurses, including one who paced back and forth in the triage area saying there were better things to do than to wait on the exam. Another stood on the other side of the curtain in the room as a rape victim was examined.
Many assault survivors said they wished they had not gone to the hospital. After calling and asking advocates whether they would be at risk, others opted not to seek care at all.
"It has so many layers of trauma, revictimizing the victim at that point, and adding to the trauma they're already experiencing," said Debra Perry, director of advocacy and crisis intervention services at YWCA Metropolitan Chicago.
One of Nelson's patients knew she had a warrant, but did not think she was at risk of arrest while seeking help. That patient was dressed and ready to go home when police arrested her as she was leaving the hospital room. When she became upset, officers pinned her to the ground and handcuffed her.
"She was screaming and crying," Nelson said. "It changed my practice. I now definitely warn patients that if the cops come because of this crime that was committed to you, that if you have a warrant, you could be apprehended as well."
The second patient had no idea about her warrant. Before Nelson could begin collecting evidence, police handcuffed one of her hands to the hospital bed railing and took her phone. "They took away her ability to have advocacy from a friend that could come," Nelson said. Because she was in custody, police did not allow visitors.
After the arrest, the patient no longer wanted to go through with the rape kit.
Rep. Yehiel Kalish (D-Chicago), who sponsored the legislation, said arresting a survivor disrupts the process of jailing rapists.
"We want to catch perpetrators of sexual assault," he said. "The sooner (victims) get medical attention, the sooner they administer that rape kit, the better chance we have."
Kalish said the legislation was crafted with input from law enforcement. Under the legislation, officers will request waivers unless a warrant is for a forcible felony, a violent crime or an alleged violation of parole.
The Illinois Health and Hospital Association, which represents hospitals throughout the state, supports the new legislation. Spokesman Danny Chun said it helps sexual assault survivors get treatment "regardless of their circumstances, including having an outstanding warrant."
In the accounts collected by ICASA, survivors who were in emergency rooms for an exam and evidence collection instead found themselves targeted. Often survivors did not push the evidence forward despite undergoing everything to get it.
In one case report by ICASA, a woman went to an emergency room for a rape exam and medication to prevent exposure to HIV. Instead, police officers found a drug-related warrant and arrested her as she wept. "Once the officers placed her under arrest, she changed her mind about everything," her advocate told ICASA. "She was crying and saying that she should have never come to the hospital."
About a year ago, Perry said, a victim of sexual assault called the YWCA's hotline. The man wanted to go to the hospital for a rape exam, but wanted to know if there was a possibility he could be arrested. He had unpaid parking tickets.
"I had to say, 'Yes, there is a possibility that that could happen to you,' " she said. "It is always really hard, and you just feel awful that you have to tell them that. But you don't want them to end up at a hospital in the state of Illinois where they're going to be arrested, either."
Recently, Perry said, an advocate called for advice. The advocate was in an emergency room with a survivor, who officers insisted they had to jail on a warrant for unpaid parking tickets.
"It's really hard when you have to say, 'I'm sorry, they have to take you into custody, at this point there's nothing you can do,'" she said.
The new law, Perry said, will remove one of the many fears survivors face as they decide whether to seek help.
"We want to make sure anyone who's been sexually assaulted can seek out medical treatment without fear of being arrested," she said.
(c)2019 Chicago Tribune
Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.