Agency looking for new way to pay for victims’ sexual assault exams amid concerns of unsteady funding

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An Oklahoma agency pulled more than $1 million from the state’s Victim Compensation Fund to pay for forensic sexual assault exams in fiscal year 2018 —a move that covered more than 2,000 exams.

However, leaders at the Oklahoma District Attorneys Council, which oversees the compensation fund, say there’s reason to be concerned about the reliability of the fund. It greatly fluctuates every month and some worry it will eventually run dry, leaving no money for future examinations.

Additionally, leaders said, the money is coming from a fund that should be used to compensate crime victims. The issue was brought up at the District Attorneys Council meeting in Oklahoma City on Thursday.

Suzanne Breedlove, director of Victims Services at the District Attorneys Council, said the issue has worried her for the last couple of years as the Victims Compensation Fund has dipped. The fund currently receives no state appropriations and is instead financed through court fines and penalty assessments. Breedlove said she has seen a drop in money coming from those sources, and the Legislature should appropriate money for the exams.

“I’ve always been concerned, mainly in the last couple of years, if the Victims Compensation Fund goes dry, without state funds, how are we going to pay for rape exams,” Breedlove asked.

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“Those nurses that are out there doing the rape exams, they’re not going to be doing them if they don’t get paid, right? So I think that would kind of throw our state into kind of a crisis if that were to happen.”

Sexual assault forensic exams, also called rape kit exams, can preserve DNA evidence from a sexual assault and provides victims with important medical care, such as STI prevention medication. The exam, often performed by a specially trained nurse, can take several hours. The fund also pays for medical exams for children who have been sexually assaulted.

The exams can also increase the likelihood of the perpetrator being prosecuted. Victims are not required to report their assault to police in order to get a SANE exam.

The cost of sexual assault exams was about 12 percent of the fund’s spending in FY 18, Breedlove said. The Victims Compensation Fund does not pay for evidence collection for any other type of crime. The fund, overseen by a three-member board, aims to provide compensation to victims of violent crimes. It can reimburse victims and their families for costs such as funerals, lost wages and medical costs.

Breedlove said she would like to expand the program’s services and give more compensation to victims, but there isn’t enough money.

“So the state needs to pony up the money and fund them, in my opinion,” she said. “I think that, and this is money, this $1 million is money that was ordered by the courts to go to victims.

“So really the victims are paying for these exams. It’s not the state of Oklahoma.”

Breedlove said she worries about a situation where the board has to choose between paying for a victim’s funeral or sexual assault exams.

“I hope we’re never in that position,” she said. “I’m trying to sound the alarm now.”

The state used to appropriate money to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation for the cost of the exams, but that duty was transferred to the District Attorneys Council in the early 90s. Since then, exams have been paid for through the Victims Compensation Fund, and the exam’s cost has gone up, Breedlove said.

The cost of a sexual assault examination can vary, but it was about $250 in 2001, she said. The cost rose to $450 in 2007 and has remained steady.

Oklahoma law guarantees victims the right to a free medical examination, and the federal Violence Against Women Act requires states to provide sexual assault forensic exams free of charge in order to be eligible for certain grant funding.

Breedlove said unless another agency takes up the issue with the Legislature, District Attorney’s Council leaders are likely to present the idea in its budget request for next year.

Related reading:

With $1.5 million federal grant, Tulsa police will process some untested kits. Old sexual assault cases could be reopened

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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