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Sidney Health Center

Nurses at Sidney Health Center in Richland County are no longer performing sexual assault exams. The hospital is being sued and won't say why the exams are being suspended.

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

A hospital in Eastern Montana remains locked in a lawsuit by a woman who said it denied her a rape kit after she was sexually assaulted, and discriminated against her based on her status as a Native American woman.

A Yellowstone County woman filed the lawsuit in Billings U.S. District Court against Sidney Health Center in January 2017. The two sides will soon head to mediation, with a request for a trial possible in early summer if necessary. The woman is seeking an unspecified amount of damages.

The Yellowstone County woman went to the Eastern Montana hospital in November 2016 after she was sexually assaulted by an unknown assailant, according to the complaint. She was treated for neck injuries she sustained earlier that night in a separate assault, but was not granted her request for a sexual assault nurse examiner, or SANE, exam, the complaint said.

Sexual assault nurse examiners are specially trained to gather evidence from victims after a sexual assault. The evidence may include DNA, pictures of injuries and statements from the victim. The evidence may be used in court to identify assailants and corroborate a victim's statement.

A SANE exam was previously supposed to occur within 72 hours of the assault, but many states are now expanding the best practice timeframe to within five days, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The woman arrived in a Sidney Police Department vehicle. Accompanying her, and also requesting she receive the exam, were two police officers and a victim witness advocate from the Richland County Attorney’s Office.

The hospital had on staff at the time two nurses certified in performing SANE exams.

One was on shift in the emergency department that night and said she could not perform the exam at the time due to her regular shift duties, but would do so in six hours once her shift ended. The second certified nurse was contacted but declined to come into the hospital to perform the exam.

The woman was sent to a hotel for the night and ended up having a SANE exam three days later at the Billings Clinic, 270 miles away.

The complaint said the hospital violated a federal law requiring emergency departments to treat and stabilize anyone who visits a hospital and needs it, called the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act. The law was aimed at ensuring medical services regardless of the patient’s ability to pay.

The hospital also violated the Montana Human Rights Act by denying her the SANE exam, the complaint said, because the hospital performed the SANE exam for other, non-Native patients when they requested it.

In its response, the hospital said it had not violated the federal law because it had provided the necessary medical treatment to stabilize the woman.

The hospital also argued the woman could not prove the hospital had a duty to perform a SANE exam on her, “let alone at the specific time when Plaintiff presented to the SHC emergency room,” the hospital response said.

The on-shift nurse offered to arrange an exam for her at a neighboring location. Before discharging the woman at 1:30 a.m., hospital staff gave her instructions to return to the Sidney Health Center the next morning for the exam, when the on-shift nurse would be available.

A police officer returned in the morning with a rape kit, and the on-shift nurse was available, but the woman did not return, the hospital said in court documents.

“Rather, (Sidney Health Center) made all reasonable attempts to accommodate Plaintiff’s request for a SANE exam, both at the SHC and at other neighboring facilities,” the hospital said.

The plaintiff denied that she was given instruction to return the next morning.

Plaintiffs must assert they are seeking at least $75,000 in damages in order to file a civil suit in federal court, under one set of criteria.

Attorney Veronica Procter, who represents the Yellowstone County woman bringing the suit, said they would defer to the jury to determine damages but declined to comment further on the case.

Attorneys for the Sidney Health Center, of the Helena firm Browning, Kaleczyc, Berry & Hoven, P.C., declined to comment on the active case.

The Sidney Health Center announced in December 2016 that it would no longer performs SANE exams.

For the past year, the victim witness coordinator for the five-county Seventh Judicial District in Eastern Montana has driven victims in Sidney to nearby towns for the exams.

Victims choose from hospitals in Glendive, Miles City, Billings, Wolf Point or Williston, North Dakota. The district’s victim witness program pays for the transportation.

Program Director Paula Eberling said the change had been significant for victims.

“We have individuals who are traumatized because of their rape,” she said. “And then they have to sit another four hours — let’s say they go to Billings, that’s another four hours — then they have to sit in the same clothing that they came to the hospital in.”

Through a spokeswoman, Sidney Health Center declined to explain why it stopped administering SANE exams or to comment on whether it was related to the lawsuit.

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Justice Reporter

Justice reporter for the Billings Gazette.