Sexual assault survivor seeking change; wants SAFE kits more widely available

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RIDGECREST, Calif. (KGET) — When a young Ridgecrest woman was date-raped by a man she thought she could trust, it took all the courage she had to go into the local hospital and ask for an exam. But she was told the type of exam she wanted, sometimes called a rape kit, couldn’t be done there. In fact she was told there was only one hospital in the entire county, that could perform one. So she didn’t get one, and instead joined the ranks of the three of every four sexual assault victims who don’t report their attacks.

It was a first date, with a man Stephanie Wentworth thought was a friend.

“It was supposed to be innocent,” Wentworth said. “No is supposed to mean no. No matter who you are, or what date you’re on.”

They never made it out of the house.

“Things started to get a little heated, and I’m like, I don’t want to do that,” she recalled. “He said, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ Next thing I knew we were on the bed. I was not wearing clothes and he was taking advantage and I started to cry and said you need to stop.”

But once he left, the trauma wasn’t over. The next day she revealed what happened to a friend, who talked her into going to the local hospital, Ridgecrest Regional.

“I knew I needed to go to the hospital and get the kit and get the testing done, just for my peace of mind, but talking to my friend and my mom, I was so scared that someone was going to look at me like it was my fault,” said Wentworth.

She wanted a rape kit performed, but was told they didn’t do that. That the only hospital in the entire county that could administer one, was two hours away in Bakersfield.

“It was soul crushing. Do you know how much courage it took for me to walk through this door? I can’t stay strong for two hours and wait,” says Wentworth.

According to RAINN, the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network, three out of every four sexual assaults go unreported. Out of every 1,000 perpetrators, only five will go to jail. For Wentworth, one of the biggest reasons she decided not to pursue charges she says, was not having easy access to a sexual assault forensic evidence kit, commonly known as a SAFE kit.

“When someone has been traumatized, especially suffered sexual violence, it is very difficult to then ask them to go the extra mile to get the recourse they are seeking, but in our very large county, there just aren’t a lot of options,” said Louis Gill, the executive director of the Alliance Against Family Violence and Sexual Assault.

The SAFE kits are quite complex. Not only in how they are performed, but the equipment used, and the process of making sure evidence isn’t contaminated. The owner of Kern County Forensic Services, the company contracted through the county to perform the exams, says many times, cases are thrown out because exams are performed by nurses or doctors who aren’t trained or experienced in testifying.

In 2014 the company started operating at Adventist Health Bakersfield. The hospital bought the equipment and allows the company to use the rooms. The CEO of Ridgecrest Regional Hospital, Jim Suver, said it would be too expensive to provide the same level of service at a hospital their size, without it being a collaborative effort.

Carol Beecroft, the CEO of The Women’s Center High Desert said they’ve tried for decades to find a solution that doesn’t require a victim to go over a mountain to get an exam, but she points out that many other rural areas in California face the same problem. In Bishop, victims have to go to Nevada if they want this specialized exam.

“It’s an awful thing that in a county as far flung as ours, we just don’t have the specialties in the outlying areas,” said Gill. “They exist in the large urban center. So people have to travel to us. There are some good things in having this one provider for this service, in that there are lower wait times at Adventist Health than there used to be in the past. They are highly trained and specialized, but the victims have to adjust to the company. The company doesn’t adjust to the victims, and that’s because of geography.”

But finally, some movement in the right direction. Just this year, Kern County Forensic Services started offering exams at Adventist Health in Tehachapi. It’s still a drive for outlying communities, but Wentworth says if she’d been told that, she probably would have gotten it done there. Suver said they didn’t know that was now an option, and in the future they will direct victims there. Something that might help desert rape victims feel a little less deserted.

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