'Huge gaps' still exist in access to rape kit exams across Nova Scotia

Sexual assault victims that live in some parts of Nova Scotia have to travel as far as four hours round trip to have a rape kit examination done at a hospital.

Some victims have chosen not to have evidence collected because no examiners are available locally

Some Nova Scotians face a long journey to get access to forensic exams, also known as rape kits, which can be done up to 120 hours after a sexual assault. (Teghan Beaudette/CBC)

Victims of sexual assault in some parts of Nova Scotia face a four-hour round-trip journey if they want evidence of the crime documented — a crucial step if their rapist is ever to face charges at trial. 

Sexual assault nurse examiners, or SANEs, are trained to collect that evidence, a practice commonly called a rape kit exam. While the Department of Health has said for years that they are working to hire more SANEs, there are still large swaths of the province where their services are not available to sexual assault victims. 

The community co-ordinator for the Colchester Sexual Assault Centre in Truro says it is a "huge issue in our area."

"There's a huge gap," said Kendra MacKinnon. 

SANEs are currently available on-call to hospitals in New Glasgow, Halifax Regional Municipality, Antigonish and near Port Hawkesbury. 

As of this week, the service expanded to Yarmouth and the Nova Scotia Health Authority says they plan to bring the service to Sydney "in the near future." At one point, the province promised to have the service running in Sydney by the fall of 2015.

But in 2018, many victims are still facing a long trip to see a nurse examiner, MacKinnon said.

"That doesn't help survivors here … there's still that gap of Colchester East Hants. And let's not forget about Cumberland County. The folks from Amherst that get sexually assaulted that need a SANE examination have to go to New Glasgow or Halifax, which is a huge barrier as well," she said.

"I'm ecstatic that they're expanding the program. I would just like to see it expand this way."

Victim sent away from Truro hospital

After a sexual assault victim went public with her story of being sent away from the Truro hospital, Health Minister Randy Delorey said the department will be reviewing the gaps in service.

"We're working with the Nova Scotia Health Authority to dig in, to understand exactly what transpired there, to evaluate whether that's a one-off situation or something that's reflective, that needs to be addressed in a broader context," Delorey said on Friday.

MacKinnon said the health authority is supposed to provide transportation to another hospital that can provide an exam, but this woman was just shown the door after being told to go to the Antigonish hospital. 

"It's just really disappointing that she was treated in that manner," said MacKinnon, "I'm not surprised, because this is a fight we've been advocating for two years now."

The health authority provided to CBC News a 2016 document outlining the procedure for Truro hospital staff when sexual assault victims arrive at their emergency room.

It says staff and doctors "will make all efforts to arrange for transportation to and from referral site, if needed" and "continue to provide support while awaiting transportation."

Victims who don't have a way to get to another hospital are typically taken in ambulances, said Truro Police Service Insp. Rob Hearn. 

He added that Truro police occasionally transport victims, but that it's up to the hospital to transfer patients to collect rape kit evidence. 

Fighting for rape examiners in Truro

MacKinnon said the Colchester Sexual Assault Centre has led a committee, which includes Truro police and RCMP, that has asked the province to fund on-call SANEs on weekends in Truro.

Hearn said Truro police would welcome having the SANE program available locally.

But MacKinnon said they have not yet received a response from the province.

"It all comes down to funding and money, the government has to step up to the plate and offer more funding for this service," she said. "Truro is a very big area, so I'm not sure why this gap still exists in 2018."

No local examiners means evidence not collected

Up until now, sexual assault victims in the Yarmouth area have had to travel more than three hours one-way to Halifax to get a rape kit done, said Lisanne Turner, the executive director of the Tri-County Women's Centre.

Turner said some have decided not to have evidence collected because of the long journey.

This week, the Tri-County Women's Centre launched a SANE program to provide 24/7 response at the Yarmouth Regional Hospital with funding from the health authority.

The centre is also hiring nurses to start working in the Annapolis Valley and the South Shore region soon.

The province announced funding for those areas two years ago and the women's centre has been preparing the program in the meantime.

"I think there absolutely needs to be SANE programs available across the province," said Turner. "In our area anyway, this is a good starting point."

Can doctors perform exams?

The procedure document from the Truro hospital states that having a local physician perform the sexual assault examination is an option.

But the health authority says doctors and nurses are not typically trained on how to carry out those exams.

"While some physicians have some expertise in forensic examination and evidence collection, this is not part of standard registered nurse (RN) or physician training," health authority spokesperson Kristen Lipscombe said in an emailed statement to CBC News.

"This is additional or advanced training offered within SANE training, an advanced specialty. SANEs receive more than 40 hours of classroom training on top of clinic training."

However in a subsequent email, Lipscombe wrote, "please note that sexual assault examinations kits may be completed by physicians in any hospital."

Sexual assault nurse examiners saw 208 patients in Nova Scotia last year.

Read more articles from CBC Nova Scotia

About the Author

Mairin Prentiss

Reporter

Mairin Prentiss is a reporter in Nova Scotia. Get in touch at mairin.prentiss@cbc.ca