August 29, 2007
“Carole” (not her real name) was brutally raped in Fairbanks, Alaska, in July 2006. She reported the crime right away, telling the police she had been raped by a non-Native man. The city police officers took her description of the perpetrator and said they would go look for him. Carole waited for them to return. When they didn’t, she went to the emergency room to seek treatment. She had bruises all over her body, and she was so traumatized that she was speaking very quickly, a support worker reported. The medical staff assumed she was drunk.
“[They] treated her like a drunk Native woman first and a rape victim second,” the support worker said. The hospital workers gave her some painkillers and money to go to a non-Native shelter. But the shelter turned her away because they too assumed she was drunk.
Ill equipped to help
One in three Indian women will be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime–a rate 3.5 times higher than any other racial groups. Many women who are raped do not have access to basic health resources in Indian country. They travel long distances to Indian Health Service hospitals expecting to receive physical and mental health services only to find that there is no staff trained to treat sexual assault victims, says the Native American Women’s Health Education Resource Center (NAWHERC). Many can’t even get rape kits, the exams used to collect evidence after a rape. With no forensic evidence, rapists are free to rape again. This is part of the reason that the number of rapes is so high.
The Indian Health Service is the federal agency, within the Department of Health and Human Services, responsible for administering health care to Native Americans. Fewer than ten IHS hospitals have trained personnel, including sexual assault nurse examiners (SANE), to perform emergency services in the event of a rape. The 2005 NAWHERC report, “A Survey of Sexual Assault Policy and Protocols within Indian Health Service Emergency Rooms,” found that about 30 percent of IHS service units do not have sexual assault protocols in place. Of the units that do, only 56 percent have protocols actually posted and accessible for staff members; this means that over half of the units have sexual assault policies that are not even being implemented.