Lawmakers seek to overhaul the way colleges, hospitals and authorities handle sexual assault

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BATON ROUGE, Louisiana — The young woman had been raped near LSU's Baton Rouge campus, but that wasn't the only indignity she suffered, her mother later recalled.

In reporting the attack, the 18-year-old encountered apathetic authorities, harsh questioning and a hospital that not only billed her thousands of dollars for a medical exam, but also tacked on a late-night fee because she sought help after 10 p.m., the mother said.

In Louisiana, her story is not unique.

"If our homes are broken into, we are not charged for evidence collection," said the woman's mother, who testified on condition of anonymity before a Senate committee last fall. "After being poked and prodded and interrogated, this was the last straw: over $4,200 dollars in billings."

Now, the Legislature appears ready to address those concerns and more, with support from Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal.

Two New Orleans Democrats — Rep. Helena Moreno and Sen. J.P. Morrell — have proposed legislation they say will reform the way law enforcement, hospitals and colleges across the state address sexual assault.

One key component of the legislation would ban hospitals from billing women for a post-assault exam — a practice that is common, though not universal, in Louisiana despite a federal law against charging victims for a forensic exam. Moreno's bill would let health care providers instead seek payment from a state crime victim's board.

"These are horrific crimes, and we need to do everything we can to help these women so they are not victimized yet again when they seek medical help," said Jindal, who wants to pay for the medical exams with an estimated $2.5 million in yearly unclaimed gambling winnings.

Many other states have for decades paid for post-assault exams, said Ebony Tucker, executive director of the Louisiana Foundation Against Sexual Assault.

But in Louisiana, some parishes have refused to pay for victims' medical exams unless they are willing to report their assault to authorities. Authorities in some parishes have also reportedly administered lie detector tests to victims.

Other legislation would address college campus sexual assaults, which are often underreported.

Morrell described learning how many colleges handle claims of sexual assault as "akin to reading a horror novel."

"Everyone is doing something different and all of it was bad," he said.

One of Morrell's bills would require colleges and law enforcement agencies to release annual figures on the number of sexual assaults reported and investigated, along with the number of forensic sexual assault kits sent away for analysis — data that is currently lacking.

Colleges, hospitals and investigators would also be required to follow clearer and more stringent guidelines for investigating sexual assault claims and providing victims with counseling and medical care.

Morrell is also seeking to require colleges to conduct an annual study to measure students' awareness of sexual assault.

"So many of them don't understand the law," the senator said. "That's a failure of universities to educate these young people with very different ideas about what is rape and what (it) is not."

Another bill was proposed in response to a well-publicized backlog of sexual assault evidence exams, some of which sat on shelves for months, if not years. If approved, law enforcement agencies would have seven days to collect a forensic kit from a hospital. After that, they would have 30 days to send it off for DNA testing.


Online:

House Bills 143, 194 and 311 and Senate Bills 37 and 255 can be found at http://www.legis.la.gov

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