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Legislature

Bill Seeks to Expand Sexual Assault Response Resources

House Bill 79, introduced by Rep. Amy Regier of Kalispell, would bolster sexual violence resources in rural communities and offer expanded training for medical providers

By Denali Sagner
The Montana State Capitol in Helena. Beacon file photo

The Montana House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 11 heard testimony on House Bill 79, a measure proposed by Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, which would bolster Montana’s sexual assault response network and would increase the availability of sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) training throughout the state.

The committee hearing featured testimony from a number of stakeholders, who advocated for the passage of the bill and suggested various amendments. If passed, the legislation would increase coordination between state agencies tasked with sexual violence responses, and would increase access to medical and legal care for individuals in Montana’s rural communities, who are often forced to travel long distances to receive critical treatment after instances of sexual violence. 

Currently, sexual assault services in Montana are funded by the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), a grant program administered by the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. To address a backlog in rape kit testing, SAKI awarded the Montana Department of Justice (DOJ) $2 million in 2016 to improve the processes of cataloging, tracking and testing sexual assault kits. The program received two more rounds of federal funding in recent years — a 2017 grant of $917,740, and a 2020 grant of $992,072.

“It works, but it really needs to be expanded,” Regier told the Beacon, regarding the SAKI program.

Under House Bill 79, the SAKI program would no longer be grant-funded, and would be formally established and standardized under the Montana DOJ.  

The legislation would also create a sexual assault response team committee, which would include members such as, but not limited to: a sexual assault nurse examiner; representatives from the Montana Hospital Association and the Montana Nurses Association; a victim services provider; members of law enforcement; and representatives from the DOJ. The committee would adopt educational and clinical standards for SANE training, would identify and implement a statewide platform for SANE providers to engage, mentor, share, and network with one another, and would develop partnerships with TeleSANE, a telemedicine service that allows individuals in areas without a trained SANE provider to receive medical care after an assault.

Dana Toole, the special services bureau chief at the Montana DOJ, stressed the importance of TeleSANE in Montana, where many individuals live in remote corners of the state.

“Through technology, the trained and certified examiner can get connected through TeleSANE, walk another licensed medical professional through the steps of doing an exam, and it doesn’t mean that we have to have a SANE nurse on-site in every medical facility around the state,” Toole said at the hearing, emphasizing that House Bill 79 would allocate specific funding for the state to implement such programs.

“We all know, Montana’s a big state, lots of rural communities, and TeleSANE services would allow us to support some of the smaller areas,” Keeley Bowman, coordinator of the Forensic Nursing Program at Bozeman Deaconess Health, said.

While the bill faced widespread support at the hearing, stakeholders suggested amendments to expand the committee and the guidelines for how small, rural hospitals will finance such programs.

Keegan Medrano, the director of policy and advocacy for the ACLU of Montana, supported the bill, while asking legislators to include Indigenous representation in the bill text.

“If we are crafting a committee to support efforts to provide uniform sexual assault evidence kit distribution and handling, coordinating a comprehensive, trauma-informed response to survivors of sexual violence, we feel it necessary to have Indigenous representation,” Medrano said.

Robin Turner, a lobbyist for the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, emphasized the benefits the bill would offer to survivors of sexual violence in Indigenous communities, while also suggesting adding increased representation to the committee. 

“There are of course jurisdictional challenges that have led to the erasure of these crimes against Indigenous people,” Turner said. “A lack of SANE services in some of our communities means that not all tribal members can access services in their communities and must drive hundreds of miles, if not hours, to a hospital to properly provide an exam.”

According to a 2019 report from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 37.2% of Montana women and 34.6% of Montana men have experienced intimate partner physical violence, intimate partner sexual violence, and/or stalking in their lifetimes. The threat of sexual violence is even more acute in Indigenous communities, where 56% of Indigenous women report having experienced sexual violence during their lifetime, according to the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center. The majority of reported sexual violence in Indigenous communities is committed by non-Indigenous offenders.

As the legislative process continues, Regier told the Beacon that amendments are currently being drafted to address the concerns raised in the hearing. More information on the 68th Legislative Session can be found at leg.mt.gov.

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