Sexual assault victims in East Baton Rouge Parish for years have gone to local hospitals for treatment and to be examined for possible physical evidence from an attack. But officials with the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office are now pushing to take over supervision of this work, saying they have a legal responsibility to do so.
Coroner Dr. Beau Clark recently asked for an extra $490,000 from the city-parish for his 2015 budget proposal, which includes funds to hire four sexual assault nurse examiners. Clark also wrote the state attorney general last month seeking to clarify his authority over sexual assault investigations and the city-parish’s fiduciary responsibilities to his office.
But some question the need for the change. East Baton District Attorney Hillar Moore III said prosecutors are satisfied with the current system that uses hospitals to treat and collect evidence from rape victims.
In an Aug. 8 letter to the attorney general, Clark asked the state’s top lawyer to render an opinion on who is responsible under state law for collecting evidence from victims of sexual assault and who is responsible for funding those efforts.
He also pointedly asked who “shoulders the liability when the parish governing authority refuses to adequately fund the coroner’s efforts” and whether evidence in a rape case could be determined inadmissible in court during prosecution if it is collected by a medical facility without the official designation of the coroner.
The Attorney General’s Office has yet to respond to the request, but a spokeswoman with the office said the letter was assigned and answers are being researched.
Under Louisiana law, coroners have unique powers. Along with the responsibility to conduct autopsies, they are statutorily tasked with investigating sexual assaults and conducting evaluations on mentally ill people whose families want them committed to treatment.
But while the authority to conduct examinations of rape victims has been on the books for years, parish coroners in Louisiana commonly designate local hospitals to work with these patients.
Shane Evans, chief of investigations in the Coroner’s Office, who responded to questions on Clark’s behalf, said the law is clear about the coroner’s legal duty to collect evidence in sexual assault crimes. He said there are inconsistencies in how various parish hospitals collect evidence from rape victims, which could compromise prosecutions.
However, Moore said that hasn’t posed a problem for prosecutors.
The district attorney said Baton Rouge enjoys a higher standard of care for its treatment of sexual assault victims because they are examined in hospitals. He stressed that he’s not aware of any instances in which a hospital worker has mishandled evidence and negatively impacted prosecution in a sexual assault case.
“We are kind of spoiled here because we do have a higher standard of care,” Moore said, noting that in most cases rape victims in East Baton Rouge Parish are treated by physicians who are trained in evidence collection, rather than the nurses proposed in Clark’s plan.
“As a lawyer, you’d always rather have a medical doctor as your expert witness compared to a nurse,” Moore said.
The district attorney also noted that hospitals are volunteering their services at no cost to the city-parish or to the victims.
The Coroner’s Office has proposed hiring specialized sexual assault nurses, who would be deployed to the various hospitals or locations where a sexual assault is reported to work with the victims and collect evidence.
The type of program envisioned is the national standard, Evans said, and is being used successfully in Jefferson, Caddo and Lafayette parishes.
“Is it better to use a specifically trained nurse examiner or a doctor that may do one sexual assault evidence collection every three years?” Evans asked.
He said he’s seen cases of questionable storage of evidence in rape cases at some hospitals, including a rape kit that has “sat in a refrigerator for more than a month and a half” and hospitals using mini-fridges “like the kind seen in a dorm” to hold evidence.
Allowing hospitals to handle rape victims, Evans said, was tantamount to an “abdication of duty” by the Coroner’s Office.
In East Baton Rouge Parish, female sexual trauma victims 14 years or older are referred to Woman’s Hospital, which has board-certified OB-GYNs who are on staff to treat the victims.
Cheri Johnson, vice president of perinatal services at Woman’s Hospital, said one of the hospital’s staff physicians is a national expert in forensic evidence collection.
She noted that when the hospital opened its new campus in 2012, it built separate rooms for sexual assault victims where they could be examined and interviewed by law enforcement and have a place to be with family in a more peaceful setting than a typical hospital waiting room or emergency room.
“We do a good job of collecting forensic evidence,” Johnson said. “We use actual OB-GYNs, so our model isn’t like anywhere else.”
Evans agreed Woman’s Hospital is doing a good job but noted that male and children victims can’t be admitted there. Sexual assault victims are also being treated at other hospitals across the parish where, he said, doctors may lack training.
Last year, for example, hospitals treated 99 sexual assault victims who were 14 or older, and Woman’s Hospital treated only 48 of them. The rest were treated at other area hospitals.
Rachael Hebert, executive director of Sexual Trauma Awareness and Response, said she supports Clark’s proposal to take over evidence collection. But she said hospitals need to stay involved because they provide much-needed medical treatment to the women who sometimes require surgery, psychiatric services or other medical care.
“It’s not a question of do we use (trained sexual assault nurses) or do we use hospitals,” she said. “We really need both for both their speciality and their forensic training.”
Hebert agreed that evidence collection procedures are not uniform among the six hospitals in the parish.
“Woman’s Hospital does a great job with its victims, but the problem is they’re not seeing 100 percent of them,” she said. She said some victims treated at other hospitals had to wait in emergency rooms or have endured long wait times.
Clark has made bold requests in the past for additional money to run his office. In November, he asked the council to increase his $2 million budget by 44 percent to allow him to hire additional staff. The request was denied. City-parish-funded departments generally see only modest increases in their annual budgets year over year.
However, the Coroner’s Office did enjoy a 32 percent budget increase from 2011 to 2013, one of the most dramatic increases of any agency.
Clark has complained that while East Baton Rouge Parish is the most populous parish in the state, its budget lags behind other coroner’s offices like Jefferson Parish, which has a budget of about $5 million a year from a designated property tax.
Finance Director Marsha Hanlon said no budget decisions about 2015 have been finalized. Mayor-President Kip Holden will present his budget proposal in November.
Moore complimented Clark’s efforts as coroner to improve services for sexual trauma victims but said hospital workers are well within their legal rights to treat the victims and collect evidence.
“We have a very good coroner who has done an outstanding job,” Moore said. “He’s just being extremely cautious, but the procedures we use are valid and there is no question about the admissibility of evidence.”