State Attorney General Josh Stein announces the details of The Survivor Act, a bill proposed in the state Legislature that outlines a protocol for law enforcement agencies to follow on when and how to submit rape kits to the state crime lab. The bill would also appropriate $6 million to test untested rape kits statewide, which are estimated to be around 17,000. Kate Martin/Carolina Public Press

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As the world girds for a long fight against COVID-19 and North Carolinians shelter in their homes, advocates for survivors of sexual assault say they have seen an increase in calls for help.

Protocols at hospitals and other medical facilities have changed, upending how advocacy organizations help victims even in the best of times.

As hospitals face their biggest challenge in a century, advocates also worry that victims will not seek help out of fear of being exposed to the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.

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“I wouldn’t say that any of our services at InterAct have ceased, however we have changed the way many services are provided,” said Lauren Schwartz, director of sexual assault services at InterAct in Wake County. The nonprofit serves victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Carolina Public Press sought comment from several hospital systems around North Carolina on how they plan to help victims during the pandemic.

All that responded said they will continue to serve sexual assault victims. To prevent the spread of COVID-19, some processes will change, however.

“Although some hospitals have changed the protocol during this time that doesn’t allow advocates in the hospital, we have adapted to providing virtual or telephone support to the survivor,” said Monika Johnson Hostler, executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

It’s been less than two months since COVID-19 became a household term, but while many aspects of people’s lives have drastically changed, the need for evidence preservation after an attack will remain.

“We believe sexual assault is happening,” Johnson Hostler said. “I believe the more vulnerable populations are going to be children and older people, which we saw during (Hurricane) Katrina and any other disaster.”

Though there are at times critical shortages of personal protective equipment for hospital workers, hospitals say they will still serve victims of sexual assault.

A hospital might direct a victim to another area of the hospital or another building to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus. And advocates who would be there in person to hold the victims’ hand and walk them through the examination and evidence collection process will be there via telephone or video instead.

“We’ve instituted a web-chat feature on our site that allows survivors to reach us silently and anonymously in addition to our 24/7 crisis lines,” Schwartz, of InterAct, said.

“We also offer virtual case management and follow-ups so that our survivors can have a face-to-face interaction with our staff, and we’re getting ready to implement virtual support groups.”

After a sexual assault, the clock is ticking. The victim’s body, now a crime scene, must be screened, scraped and swabbed; cataloged, labeled and sealed away. The very evidence that prosecutors need and juries often demand at trial is at stake.

Cliff Mehrtens, a spokesman for Charlotte-based Novant Health, said in an email last month that several of Novant’s hospitals will continue to provide access to sexual assault nurse examiners, or SANE nurses.

“All greater Charlotte market hospitals will continue to perform SANE exams during the pandemic,” he said last month. “We are following all appropriate COVID-19 precautions and will continue to care for and support victims of sexual assault through this crisis.”

Those who go to UNC hospitals will be screened for COVID-19 before being taken to a separate area of the hospital to prevent infections, Jennifer Sollami, clinical manager of the emergency department at UNC Rex Healthcare in Raleigh, and Dr. Karen Serrano, the medical director of the SANE program at UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill, said in a joint statement.

Hospitals around the nation are also restricting visitors. While victims may not have in-person support, advocacy organizations are planning for video chats and follow-up care.

Last month, Attorney General Josh Stein urged hospitals to maintain their support for SANE nurses through the duration of the pandemic.

“While many of us shelter in place to preserve safety, we must also consider those among us who are less safe at home,” Stein said. “Services for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and other crimes must remain available, including sexual assault nurse examiners. During the COVID-19 crisis, my message to victims remains the same: We care about what happened to you and we will work to achieve justice on your behalf.”

For a list of rape crisis centers in North Carolina, click here.

Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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