Rape kits soon available in Sea-to-Sky region of British Columbia

VANCOUVER – A public health nurse will soon be available to administer rape kits in Squamish, B.C., after a years-long fight by local advocates to remove barriers to justice for sexual assault victims.

Vancouver Coastal Health has announced that a nurse will be available as of mid-December to offer the forensic exams, which collect evidence after an assault for a criminal prosecution.

The news comes after The Canadian Press reported last month that victims in the Sea-to-Sky corridor, which stretches from Horseshoe Bay to north of Pemberton, had to travel for hours to access kits at a Vancouver hospital.

Squamish Coun. Susan Chapelle and the Howe Sound Women’s Centre have been calling for a trained forensic nurse in the region for years, and on Thursday Chapelle said she was thrilled.

“Exciting news — one hospital though,” she said. “It’s one nurse in one hospital. Really, B.C. had 19 hospitals without forensic nurse care and now we have 18 hospitals without forensic nurse care.”

Across Canada, many hospitals lack trained staff to administer the kits. Thirteen health centres in southern B.C. can provide the exams, while doctors in all 24 northern hospitals have the necessary training.

Chapelle has said victims sometimes had to take a trip in the back of a police car to Vancouver General Hospital, where they could get the exam.

The councillor was raped as a young woman, a fact she has spoken openly about to draw attention to hurdles in the justice system.

Howe Sound Women’s Centre advocate Shannon Cooley Herdman applauded the announcement, but said more services are still needed throughout the corridor.

“We see this as an excellent step and a key piece to providing a comprehensive response to sexualized violence in our region,” she said.

Vancouver Coastal Health said it has been discussing the issue with community members and doctors for three years. Chapelle has said the authority lacked resources from the Health Ministry.

Laurie Leith, director of the health authority’s coastal region, said funding was just one of many roadblocks, including how to make the exams available around the clock.

“There’s never new funding (that) comes with these types of programs, so we have to look at our existing resources and figure out how best we can make it happen,” she said.

Ultimately, the cost was kept low by selecting a public health nurse who is already on the payroll. She’ll receive three days of training on how to administer the exams and be on call to Squamish General Hospital.

The main expenditure for the authority is $10,000 on new equipment, including a locked freezer to store evidence.

The kits will initially only be available on weekdays, but Leith said some local doctors have expressed interest in getting trained. Eventually they will form a team with the goal of being available on a 24-hour basis.

Leith said it was extremely important to remove barriers to women who want a forensic exam. But the authority isn’t currently looking at making kits available in other hospitals, such as Lions Gate Hospital in North Vancouver.

“Is a half-an-hour trip across the bridge a barrier to care? I’m not sure I can answer that right now, but possibly it’s something to be explored in the future,” Leith said.

“We haven’t heard the same pressure from the community as we have in the smaller rural centres.”

— Follow @ellekane on Twitter.

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