'Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Training' 'Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Training'
A sexual assault evidence collection kit at Rape Crisis Volunteers of Cumberland County in Fayetteville, N.C. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

North Carolina is one of many states lacking enough nurses who are trained to treat survivors with compassion while collecting evidence.

Nurses in emergency rooms are often the first to treat sexual assault victims, but they frequently lack the training necessary to do so compassionately and thoroughly, especially in rural areas. A federal grant will help North Carolina take at least a small step toward filling the gap.

NC Attorney General Josh Stein announced Thursday that federal funding would be used to train 50 nurses across the state in how to better care for sexual assault survivors and properly collect evidence.

Nurses who’ve received specialized training, called Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE), learn how to treat survivors without re-traumatizing them, quickly assess and address concerns over pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases, and help them access mental health and recovery resources. 

These nurses are also the first line of defense in bringing attackers to justice. They collect and preserve evidence, and can be called to testify in any subsequent trials. Several studies show that cases in which evidence was collected by a SANE nurse, rather than a nurse without training, were more likely to be prosecuted. 

“These 50 SANE nurses,” Stein said in a press release, “will advance the cause of justice on behalf of victims and survivors of assault.” The training program will be paid for, Stein’s office said, through a grant from the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, an extension of the US Department of Justice.

‘We Cannot Stop There’

North Carolina is one of many states facing a shortage of nurses qualified to treat sexual assault victims.

Carolina Public Press has written extensively about the issue, publishing several in-depth investigations into the shortages, causes, and effects. The lack of properly-trained nurses, CPP wrote, means that many people who’ve been sexually assaulted have to wait several hours to be seen or be taken to hospitals far away. The problem is worse in rural areas. 

US Rep. Deborah Ross, who represents much of Wake County, introduced legislation this year that would provide grant money to programs dedicated to training and retaining SANE nurses. The legislation was incorporated into a larger bill, and passed both houses of Congress. President Biden signed it into law in March. 

 “I fought hard to get legislation across the finish line that will address the nationwide shortage of SANEs, but we cannot stop there,” Ross said in an emailed statement. “I’m incredibly grateful for Attorney General Stein’s leadership on this issue and for allocating this much-needed funding to train SANEs across our state.” 

A study by the US General Accounting Office found that in 2013, North Carolina was among the states with the fewest number of SANE trained nurses, ranging from 25 to 100.  But the Carolina Public Press investigation last year found at least 150 nurses across the state: improvement but still low.

It’s difficult to know exactly how many trained nurses there are, Carolina Public Press wrote, because no state agencies track the location of SANE nurses and NC hospitals are not required to hire the nurses.

This both adds to the trauma, and increases the chances that crucial evidence will be lost or overlooked.

The training program, which will be run by the Southern Regional Area Health Education Center, will start in March and end in August, Stein’s office said.

The 50 nurses will take a 40-hour online training course through the International Association of Forensic Nurses, an eight-hour course on investigating and processing sexual assualt evidence, and 16 hours of on-site training in hospitals in Fayetteville, Greenville, Elon, and Asheville.