- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - The way rape victims are treated in Louisiana is among the worst in the country, victims’ advocates say.

That’s soon to change.

Lawmakers have approved a package of bills to comprehensively address the way hospitals, authorities and public colleges investigate sexual assault and treat the victims of it. The measures now await the signature of Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, who supported the legislation during the recently adjourned legislative session. Should Jindal sign the bills into law, some provisions will take immediate effect, while others would be phased in over about a year.

State officials have long been aware there was a problem with the way sexual assault allegations were addressed.

But the issue was pushed to the forefront this year after activists and victims came forward, publicizing horror stories of demeaning and apathetic treatment.

Further galvanizing the effort was the revelation that many hospitals across the state regularly bill victims for post-assault evidence collection exams - a practice that is at odds with the federal Violence Against Women Act.

During emotional committee hearings at the Capitol, victims displayed bills for thousands of dollars in charges, stemming from assaults. Stories emerged of parishes that refused to pay for victims’ medical exams unless they were willing to report their assault to police. And authorities in some parishes were said to have administered lie detector tests to victims.

“This is a huge, huge step,” said state Rep. Helena Moreno, who sponsored many of the bills with fellow New Orleans Democrat, Sen. J.P. Morrell. “Finally victims of sexual assault will be treated fairly in the state of Louisiana.”

Moreno sponsored proposals that will bar health care providers from billing victims for a forensic exam, pregnancy testing and STD testing, among others.

One key component will redirect unclaimed gambling winnings to the state crime victim’s board, where hospitals can seek compensation for the exams. Another provision creates rigid standards for how hospitals and law enforcement are required to handle victims of sexual assault, gather DNA evidence and submit it for testing.

Bills pushed by Morrell address the thorny issue of how sexual assaults are investigated on public college campuses, which have come under scrutiny nationwide.

Colleges would be required to designate counselors who will guide student rape victims through the reporting and exam process, while also guarding their anonymity. Under the bill, victims can’t be required to report a rape to authorities. Additionally, students accused of sexual assault who attempt to transfer to another school would have their transcripts held until the campus disciplinary process is concluded. Schools will also be required to inform other schools of disciplinary findings against students who transfer.

Another measure pushed by Morrell will require law enforcement officers to take additional training in how to treat rape victims with compassion.

Morrell said the combined measures will reel in complacent hospitals, authorities and schools, who he said too often don’t take rape allegations seriously.

“We’ve given you this discretion and you’ve abused it,” said Morrell. “When someone says they are raped you have to proceed with it as if it’s a rape.”

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Online:

Senate Bills 37, 255 and House Bills 143, 835: www.legis.la.gov

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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