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Missouri lawmakers expand access to nurses trained to collect rape kits

Senate Bill 569 was delivered to the governor at the end of May. Senator Jill Schupp said tele-health assisted rape exams will be available statewide in 2022

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri has new resources for survivors of sexual assault to get the evidence they need to bring their attackers to justice.

The I-Team has been investigating the shortage of nurses trained to conduct forensic examinations that collect the evidence that goes into rape kits. A new bill headed to the governor’s desk will make sure that all rape victims who go to a hospital will have access to an exam directed by a nurse with the right training.

It’s a change that will help victims like Ka’saundra Reynolds. In 2007, she was taking a walk with her dog early in the morning.

“There was no light, except the street light,” Reynolds recalled. “I turned around and there was this man dressed in all black with a ski mask.”

Reynolds didn’t know her attacker. Even in the panic of the moment, she thought about what would happen after the attack, and how to help police track him down when he escaped.

“He was on top of me. He kept trying to pry my legs apart,” she said. “Whenever I had a free hand, I grabbed him.”

“I just grabbed everything because I felt that if I ended up dying — which I thought I was going to die — if I end up dying here, I wanted them to know who did this,” she said.

Reynolds got to safety, and an ambulance took her to St. Mary’s Health Center in Richmond Heights. That’s where a pair of specially trained nurses carefully collected evidence of the attack off her body.

Sexual assault nurse examiners, also called SANE nurses, are trained to look for every possible trace from the body and clothes of a victim. They’re also trained to support a victim’s emotional and psychological needs.

Reynolds remembered that one nurse told her, “If you feel like you need to scream, scream. No one is going to be upset.”

Not every sexual assault survivor in Missouri gets a specially trained nurse. The I-Team found in February that at least 52 counties in Missouri, almost half of counties in the state, have no hospitals staffed with a SANE nurse.

RELATED: Missouri lacking enough sexual assault nurses

State Senator Jill Schupp made it her goal to fix that.

“Some of these survivors, when they go to a hospital and are turned away because the hospital is not performing these kinds of forensic examinations, they just go home,” Schupp said.

The Missouri legislature recently passed the Justice For Survivors Act. The act establishes a statewide program that will make SANE nurses available to every hospital and every survivor in Missouri, day or night.

“We can create a network where people can simply use tele-health to call in, to access someone who is trained,” said Schupp. That way, SANE nurses can instruct any hospital nurse how to perform the exam, collect the evidence and support the victim.

Schupp said her goal is for the SANE network to be set up by July 2022. Next year, the law will require hospitals to start keeping track of how many forensic rape examinations they conduct every year, and they will need to share that information with the public.

RELATED: First batch of backlogged Missouri rape kits gathered for testing

Research shows that if a SANE nurse performs the exam and testifies in the case, it is more likely that the attacker will be identified and convicted.

“We want to make sure that we hold those perpetrators to account. Right now, out of every thousand sexual assault cases, 995 perpetrators go free,” said Schupp. “Those are astounding statistics.”

In Reynolds’s case, her nurse found DNA under her fingernails. The DNA led police to identify a suspect, Marvin Akins.

“I found out that he was exposing himself to children, and he moved up to attacking me,” said Reynolds.

Marvin Akins is now serving a 30-year prison sentence for attacking Reynolds and other crimes. Reynolds’ idea to scratch her attacker, and the hard work of the SANE nurses, gave her the closure that many rape victims never receive.

“When I got to meet that nurse later on, I was so happy, I mean, all I could do was hug her because she doesn’t, she didn’t realize what she did for me,” Reynolds remembered. “To me, they’re angels.”