TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) — In light of recent accusations by a local district attorney regarding the treatment of a rape victim by staff at the Johnson City Medical Center, News Channel 11 reached out to sexual assault victim advocates to learn about proper protocol in the care of victims and collection of evidence.

Sexual assault victim advocates said there are specific procedures and protocols in place for treating a sexual assault victim and collecting rape kits. These protocols and procedures are in place for legal reasons and to reduce trauma to the victim.

According to Lenee Hendrix at the Branch House Family Justice Center, the first step when a person arrives at a hospital seeking a rape kit should be to pair them with a victim advocate, who can explain their rights and help through the process.

“If they walk into a hospital, ideally, the hospital would reach out to the advocate immediately, and the advocate would respond to make sure that the victim knows their rights, that they know that they can request a hold kit and not have to interact with law enforcement,” said Hendrix.

The advocate will work with the victim throughout the exam, help to arrange counseling if needed and walk with them through the legal process if they choose to pursue charges. Advocates can even accompany victims to court.

“When they arrive at the hospital or with law enforcement, either way, they’re supposed to call an advocate and get us on the way there,” said Tina Johnson, Director of Victim Services for Frontier Health. “The quicker an advocate gets there to be with a victim, the less intimidating the whole process will be.”

Victims should immediately be placed in a private room, not kept in a public waiting area, according to Hendrix. District Attorney General Steve Finney claimed in a letter to Ballad Health that the victim of a recent alleged rape and kidnapping in Johnson City was told to stay in a public waiting area after arriving at the hospital.

“Sitting in a waiting room with strangers, or potentially people they might recognize, who could then come up to them and say, ‘Why are you here? What brought you to the emergency department?'” said Hendrix. “To have to tell that story is incredibly re-traumatizing.”

Johnson has walked through the process with sexual assault victims and has witnessed the trauma caused by waiting in a public space.

“I’ve been with many victims who, due to space or other issues, they’ve been put in the waiting room, and they are constantly looking at the door worried that the perpetrator is going to walk in,” Johnson said.

That first step is one of many to make sure the process of treating the victim and collecting the rape kit does not create more trauma.

“They need to feel comforted every step of the way,” said Johnson. “We’re getting ready to ask them if they want to have a very invasive test done. This is going to help your case be prosecuted, but it also is very traumatic to be kind of re-victimized.”

Then the patient will be seen by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) who is trained in the proper collection of evidence.

“They have been trained for evidence collection, forensic evidence collection, trauma-informed,” said Johnson. “They’re going to show up and know what trauma does to the brain and why this victim might not be able to tell you everything that’s just happened to them.”

Exams don’t have to be conducted at a hospital. Branch House has SANEs on call 24/7. Victims can request to be taken to the Branch House for their exams, but they must go to the Branch House first rather than the hospital. Despite being located in Sullivan County, the Branch House serves the greater area.

“When they’re called, they need to be able to respond within an hour,” said Hendrix. “We are a private facility. There’s no waiting room, they will immediately be met with an advocate and a SANE.”

That process includes getting the victim’s medical history, a narrative of the attack, a head-to-toe exam, collection of evidence including swabs and clothing, and photographs of related injuries.

“At any point in this process, the patient can decline any of this. If they do not feel comfortable with the photographs, they can decline those,” said Hendrix. “They are in full control, they can stop it anytime and request a break.”

Evidence collected could later be used in a trial if the victim decides to pursue charges.

“We know that if a victim, if their very first interaction after reporting a sexual assault is a positive one, they’re more likely to follow up to prosecute, and it lowers recantation,” said Hendrix.

After that kit and evidence are collected, they can be sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation immediately for testing or held up to 10 years if a victim does not want to report to law enforcement immediately.

Hendrix said victims should never be charged for getting rape kits done but said she has seen victims sent bills. According to Hendrix, services related to sexual assault are free and reimbursed by the State of Tennessee.

Hendrix compiled a website of resources for sexual assault survivors, law enforcement and medical professionals where they can review their rights and proper procedures. To access that site, click here.

Frontier Health’s Sexual Assault Line is (423) 306-5169. All services are free of charge.

For more Branch House resources, click here.