Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Sexual Assault Survivors Deserve Better: Calling Out the Ottawa Hospital and Sun Media

Here in Ottawa, in Ontario, and nationwide in Canada, we are used to waiting for certain hospital procedures. For some things, this is acceptable. I had a months-long wait time for my IUD consultation, for example, but that didn't bother me; I had enough birth control pills to last me in the meantime, and the IUD insertion wasn't a pressing matter that I needed handled right away.

But if I were sexually assaulted in my own community? I'd be looking for a snappy reaction. I would want to know that the evidence would be gathered in a timely, efficient manner, and that my case was being handled seriously.

Read this. Read it now, and ponder it, and then read it again. This is wrong. It is wrong for so many reasons.

It is wrong because this woman was denied access to a fundamental right: The right to make sure that police have the tools they need to press charges against those who have criminally wronged you. For those who are unaware, sexual assault evidence kits (also referred to as "rape kits") are a procedure for prosecuting sexual assault cases. They include both asking a series of open-ended questions and the collection of physical evidence. They are often crucial to properly prosecuting a sexual assault case. And sure, this woman may still be able to press charges; time will tell if the delays in her evidence collection negatively impacted the quality of said evidence. But particularly concerning the questioning portion of the kit, every second matters. The longer a victim of sexual assault has to wait, the harder it will be for her (or him) to remember what the assailant(s) looked like, what they sounded like, what they said, where they went, what time the events occurred.

It is wrong because this woman was denied this important service by her own community. Ottawa is a big city - with a population approaching one million, it is the fourth-largest city in Canada. Why was this woman forced to be sent away to a smaller community to handle the gathering of evidence for a crime that occurred in Ottawa's downtown core? A community where they would be less likely to recognize the street names, the areas? Again, every minute matters in a sexual assault case. Her only option, other than leaving the city, would have been to lie in bed, unbathed and waiting, for over a day.

It is wrong because it highlights a serious resource issue in our health care system. Shouldn't more nurses be trained to handle this? I spoke to Joan Hawkins yesterday, a coworker of mine and former employee of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre (ORCC), and she said that there is nothing in the performance of a rape kit that meaningfully requires specialized training. It is something that involves the gathering of some physical evidence (evidence that any registered nurse should be able to gather anyway, such as checking for bruises and collecting DNA samples) and a script involving non-judgmental, open-ended questions. Shouldn't all nurses already be trained to be non-judgmental toward their patients? Shouldn't they all be trained how to properly phrase questions to better understand their patients' needs?

It is wrong because there is no back-up plan. I am flabbergasted as to how not a single worker was present at the Ottawa Hospital who could assist this young woman. What happened to troubleshooting? Is this the world we leave in - a world where a lack of resources means there are no other options available? I understand why specialized nurses exist who are trained in this area, but if none were present, I would damn well expect that someone is going to take care of me.

It is wrong because it is against policy. Police protocol dictates that this woman should have been seen within an hour. Where is the accountability? Whose responsibility is it to make sure hospitals are sufficiently resourced? Why is it that on Canada Day weekend - a holiday marked by heavy drinking and partying, and therefore, increases in hospital visits - the staff of the hospital was unprepared to meet the standards laid out by the City of Ottawa's Sexual Assault Protocol?

It is wrong because it has been improperly reported. The Sun referred to the procedure as "treatment" - this is incorrect. Collection of evidence is not treatment. Treatment could include physical or psychological therapy, for some women; it could include post-traumatic stress disorder diagnoses and prescriptions for medications for others; it could include surgery or other restorative medical procedures for others; and for some victims, no treatment is requested or needed. Emotional and physical healing varies, and it takes time. Waiting a day for treatment could be entirely justified in some cases. But waiting a day for the collection of evidence? Never.

It is wrong because the hospital knows it's wrong, and because it is not a unique situation.

It is wrong because our community is underresourced, as a whole, to deal with sexual assault crimes.

It is wrong because this should not have happened, but it did, and it happens all too often.

Tell the Ottawa Hospital that this is unacceptable.

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