Sexual assault victims pay price for state's economic woes

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor



The victims of rape and sexual assault in Massachusetts are now paying the price for the state's economic crisis. The latest round of Gov. Deval Patrick's budget cuts slashed an overall total of $1.5 million from the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program.

The cut could mean the loss of SANE and Pediatric SANE personnel in any one of its seven regions statewide, which includes five area hospitals and one Child Advocacy Center at Baystate Medical Center for pediatric victims of sexual crimes.

"That [cut from our $3.2 million budget] is surely going to [mean] a reduction in services across the state. Whole regions across the state could be cut because it is such a large cut," Mary Walz-Watson, RN, SANE regional coordinator for Western Massachusetts, said. "We're advocating for restorative funds. We're hoping that money will be restored to us and that it [the cut] was just a big mistake. One can hope but then again it's politics."

SANE has provided around the clock care for 8,500 victims of sexual assault since its inception in 1997. SANE personnel are specially trained in the collection of forensic evidence and crisis intervention for all ages leading to a 90 to 100 percent successful prosecution rate, according to Walz-Watson.

Five hospitals in Western Massachusetts have partnered with SANE including Baysate Medical Center and Mercy Medical Center in Springfield; Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton; University of Massachusetts at Amherst Health Center; and Wing Memorial Hospital and Medical Centers in Palmer.

"At this point we don't know how we're going to survive [in Western Massachusetts]," Walz-Watson said. "The [governor is] taking us right back to 1997 when we had our first pilot program."

She added the news of decreased resources is coming at a time when the number of reported sexual assaults is increasing. SANE personnel in Western Massachusetts has treated 60 patients, not counting pediatrics, since the beginning of the new fiscal year on July 1.

"We're getting more stranger assaults and not acquaintances," Walz-Watson explained. "The [assaults are] more aggressive and brutal [than before]."

Thomas King, executive director of the Massachusetts Children's Alliance (MACA) an organization that receives funding via SANE's budgetary line item 4510-0810 said the cuts will most likely result in "a loss of pediatric sexual assault services in the Western Mass. region."

"We are concerned that child rape victims are being disproportionately hit with the budget cuts," he said. "It's very anxiety provoking, particularly when services to children who have been traumatized [are being cut].

"We want children seen at Child Advocacy Centers and not in ERs because that goes back to a very draconian way to dealing with child sexual assault victims," King continued. "For the majority of kids who've been abused for years the acute response [in the ERs] is inappropriate."

Juan Martinez, commun-ications director for the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, assured Reminder Publications that victims of sexual assault will continue to receive the best care possible in spite of the cuts.

"The budget cut to the [SANE] program was one of many made across state government as part of the governor's Fiscal Action Plan to deal with the unprecedented revenue shortfalls in the Commonwealth," he said. "Every decision was a painful one, but we are committed to working to make sure that victims get the care they need when they need it. We are evaluating various scenarios to determine the best way to implement the budget cut so as to have as little impact on the services provided as possible."

Ann Maynard, RN, director of Emergency Services at Baystate Medical Center, condemned the cut.

"Although we recognize the severe strains that the global economic downturn has placed on state revenues, the SANE program provides immediate support to victims of sexual assault and significantly increases the likelihood that sexual offenders are brought to justice," she said. "We believe the SANE program is an essential community resource, one that should be preserved despite the state's fiscal challenges."

Westfield State Rep. Donald Humason Jr., member of the Joint Committee on Public Health, said he empathized with the program's supporters, adding he condoned the budget cuts.

"There's no question that Massachusetts has led the way to provide cradle to grave services and that's wonderful when it's affordable . [but] we have an obligation to live within our means," he said. "The Democrats [in the legislature] have spent to the edge and beyond it [each fiscal year]. We were passing unsustainable budgets [and now] we're pulling the rug out from underneath [programs such as SANE]. It's awful."

Humason noted he was one in the minority who voted against the budget because of overspending.

Walz-Watson said SANE and Pediatric SANE programs are exploring myriad cost-cutting measures to ensure their overall survival. She added the next few weeks will tell how viable those options may be.

She encouraged state residents to contact the offices of the governor; Lt. Gov. Timothy Murray, chair of the Governor's Council to Address Sexual and Domestic Violence; and Dr. JudyAnn Bigby, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, to advocate for the restoration of SANE's state funding.

Additional information about SANE programs may be obtained by visiting www.mass.gov.

To learn about MACA, visit www.machildrensalliance.org.


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