Coronavirus Illinois: Sexual assault survivors seeking justice during the COVID-19 pandemic now have more options

CHICAGO (WLS) -- There are hidden atrocities of this pandemic. Sexual assaults are still happening and experts fear they may be occurring at an escalating rate because some people are sheltering at home with the person who is abusing them.

Going to the emergency room after being sexually assaulted must be dreadful anytime, but even more horrid during a pandemic due to fears of catching the coronavirus. A new law will now allow evidence to be collected at health clinics in addition to emergency rooms. Advocates say access to these services is critical for survivors and may lead to more successful prosecutions against rapists during this unprecedented time.

"I think any survivor will tell you that being a victim of sexual assault is absolutely horrific, and the aftermath of that, of where to go, what do I do, can be overwhelming," Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx told the I-Team.

Foxx is a sexual assault survivor. This is personal for her.

"The fact that we're in a pandemic, and you have suffered this assault and you don't know where to go. And in fact, you know the one place that you could count on to go people are telling you don't go because you can get sick....we should not close our doors to survivors. We should not have them wondering where to go. We should do everything possible to make sure that every resource is available to them. And that's what this bill does," said Foxx.

Governor JB Pritzker signed the law Friday. It will allow rape kits to be administered at federally qualified health centers instead of just at designated emergency rooms. Health centers need to apply with the state and be approved. Providers will need at least 10 hours of additional training.

"My goal is that anytime a survivor shows up for medical care they can get this treatment. So as long as it is safe and the providers are qualified, we want that medical facility to be able to provide this treatment," said Megan Rosenfeld, Policy Director for the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation.

State Rep. Kelly Cassidy worked on the legislation.

"The law that creates the boundaries for treatment of sexual assault survivors is crafted in a way that is meant to be both patient centered and focused on the law enforcement component of that. So making sure that that patients get the level of care that they have access to the appropriate medications...ensuring that any evidence collected and so you're looking for DNA evidence and photographs of injuries and things like that, that it's done in a way that will benefit the prosecution of the case that it can be proven....that it's clear that this is actually the evidence of a crime," said Cassidy.

"The city of Chicago has been a particular hotspot for COVID-19, and as a population center in Illinois. It was also naturally a hotspot for sexual assaults," said Rosenfeld.

"Howard Brown serves largely LGBTQ folks and folks of color. We're seeing this problem of access historically for the queer community, but right now because of COVID-19, it's impacting all survivors of sexual violence," said Dr. Paige Baker-Braxton with Howard Brown Health. "I think having emergency rooms remain an option for survivors, is absolutely necessary. But I think alternative avenues for care are really important. What we're seeing in the kind of the larger picture right now is that our hospitals are experiencing about a 50% decrease in calls for sexual assault. But at Howard Brown Health, in April and March, our disclosures of sexual assault doubled."

The law is a direct response to the pandemic, and is temporary.

"It has a sunset date for a year from now, but that will give us an opportunity to see how well it worked and...then certainly I will look at whether this can remain permanent, but right now this is specific to the circumstances, we're in," said Cassidy.

"My concern is that, you know, some have slipped through the cracks. And what we want to do is work with the advocacy community and tell them that it's still not too late. There is still the ability to report the statute of limitations hasn't stopped because of COVID," said Foxx.

Various federally qualified health centers throughout Illinois are completing the necessary training needed and will be able to perform rape kit examinations as soon as they receive approval from the state.
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