AUSTIN (Nexstar) — In Texas’ 254 counties, only around 40 have a facility or clinic with sexual assault nurse examiners, according to the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault. A bill filed in the Texas Senate would set up a statewide telehealth center, aimed at expanding access to certified sexual assault nurse examiners, known as SANEs, for underserved areas. 

“Sexual assault nurse examiners go through a ton of specialized training about trauma-informed care, not only about the technicalities of collecting evidence and the science behind it, but also how to interact with a sexual assault survivor, how to be trauma informed, how to connect them to resources,” said Megan Westmore, disability services project coordinator and educator at The SAFE Alliance. 

Senate Bill 71, filed by Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, would create a statewide telehealth center where local medical providers could consult sexual assault nurse examiners through telemedicine to conduct a forensic medical examination on a survivor and provide additional guidance on resources.
Even though The SAFE Alliance is based in Travis County, it still sees the impact of the shortage of certified SANEs. 

“We have seen a lot of people from surrounding counties coming to us for services,” Westmore said. “Sometimes survivors have driven for one or two hours just to come to our clinic.” 

Hockley County Sheriff Ray Scifres said adding that wait time for survivors “can be detrimental” in the outlying areas where a SANE may not be available.

“In the jurisdictions I’ve worked in, mainly it’s the time,” he said. “When you especially look at those west of Lubbock and further south, they actually have a long drive to go. Look at Denver City. You may have a 90-mile drive to go see somebody with that specific medical expertise to deal with that type of offense.”

There was a time a SANE was able to provide survivors with medical, legal and counseling services in Levelland, Scifres said. 

“Now we’re having to move all of those into Lubbock whenever we have one [incident] reported,” he said. “Of course, it doesn’t matter how many reports you get. The survivor is what’s important and making sure they have access to those services – both medical services and psychological services.”

Westmore said it’s “difficult to imagine” what a survivor has to go through when trying to find a center or a forensic nurse for help. “I think our forensic nurses have a lot of expertise they could share,” she said. “The more services and knowledge we can share, the better ultimately it will be for survivors.” 

The Texas Senate’s general appropriations bill also sets aside an additional $1 million for expanding access to sexual assault nurse examiners. 

Campus sexual assault concerns 
During Monday’s press conference at the Texas State Capitol highlighting more than a dozen bills addressing survivor-endorsed sexual assault, several students from the University of Texas at Austin spoke out against the proposed changes to Title IX by the U.S. Department of Education. 

The public comment period closed on Jan. 30 for people to weigh in on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ proposed Title IX rule changes. The input is now up for consideration before final rules are issued. 

UT Austin senior Tatum Zeko, who is also with Deeds Not Words, worries the proposed rule would no longer protect survivors in sexual assaults that happen off-campus. “That just allows more universities to sweep their sexual assault instances under the rug when we really should be going head on and fixing the problem and not ignoring it.” 

Zeko also said Senate Bill 585, filed by Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, would set clear standards for Texas’ public and private universities in matters related to sexual assault. 

“It’s a really great bill because it unites the Texas system so that they have one broad definition of sexual assault,” she said.  

Watson’s bill would require any college or university — public or private — to adopt a policy on sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking that would apply to each student and employee at the institution. The policy must define prohibited behavior, sanctions for violations and the protocol for reporting and responsible to reports of sexual harassment, sexual assault, dating violence and stalking. 

The policy would also set interim measures to protect survivors during the institution’s disciplinary process, including protection from retaliation and any other accommodations available to survivors at the college or university. 

Sophomore Ashka Dighe works with UT Austin’s chapter of It’s On Us, a national group that raises awareness and fights against sexual assault on college campuses for both men and women. Dighe spoke at the Texas Capitol about what she’s heard from students who have experienced sexual assault and said she’d like to see the process survivors have more of a voice. 

“After you’ve been sexually assaulted, that voice and that right to make a decision for yourself has been taken away from you,” she said. “It’s time to give that choice back to people.” 

Other legislation filed 
Both general appropriations bills from the Texas House and Senate include an increase of $7.5 million to eliminate wait lists at rape crisis centers. Other bills filed would also require training for peace officers for family violence and sexual assault assignments, as well as trauma-informed interviewing of victims of sexual assault or other sex offenses.