As Maricopa prepares to open its family advocacy center, Pinal County is starting its own Forensic Examination Office.
Because, County Attorney Kent Volkmer said, “We have a problem.”
Pinal County victims of sexual abuse often must travel an hour one way for appropriate forensic examinations. The ongoing agreements the county has with two providers – Phoenix Children’s Hospital and HonorHealth – are not meeting needs, according to the county attorney.
“Right now, if a child, a woman, a man – it doesn’t matter – is sexually assaulted, they are not receiving the sexual assault examination in our county,” Volkmer said.
When victims have to travel a long distance and then sit and wait for up to two hours for a forensic exam because they are lower in priority than Maricopa County residents, Volkmer said, it only adds to the trauma.
“It’s the worst time in this person’s life,” he said. “It is incredibly invasive, incredibly personal, an incredibly awful experience. The reality is they’re doing an examination for sexual assault.”
Anecdotal statements from detectives described victims often not going for the exam because they could not leave their children alone for that amount of time in what was already a stressful situation.
“We have a limited timeframe, not only for the collection of evidence, but we also have a limited timeframe for them to go forward and move with it,” Volkmer said of prosecution. “Otherwise, as a defense attorney, what they will say is, ‘Well, if it was really a rape, you would have [gone] there. Why did you wait a day; why did you wait two days? Why did you wait until it was convenient?’”
May 9, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors approved the creation of the Forensic Examination Office and the position of a full-time forensic nurse. The approval moved $165,000 from the County Attorney’s Office to the FEO with another $75,000 from the General Fund allocated to the new department.
Supervisor Steve Miller said it was the most “optimal option” as they looked at increasing costs from Phoenix Children’s and HonorHealth.
“We know the costs are going to go up because they’ve continued to,” he said.
The City of Maricopa agreed a year ago to facilitate a family advocacy center because of the lack of local services for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Maricopa Police Chief Steve Stahl said at the time the wait for forensic exams could interfere with prosecution. Yet, the family advocacy center is approached as a regional county issue.
As proposed, the FEO would not have a brick-and-mortar home but be a service provided to the two existing family advocacy centers and a new center coming online in Maricopa. A medical director would be hired to work eight hours a week, and the forensic nurse would work 40 hours a week.
The FEO will be responsible for medical forensic exams, court testimony, training and education, and program development. The five-year plan is to build to 24/7 coverage.
“The idea is that these services will be provided in our family advocacy centers,” Volkmer told the supervisors. “Instead of driving to Scottsdale or downtown Phoenix, they’d be driving to Eloy or San Tan Valley or Maricopa.”
He said it would make it easier on victims, families and law enforcement.
Under its current contract, Phoenix Children’s Hospital has staff come to Eloy and San Tan Valley once a week and perform up to three examinations. The day and time are determined by Phoenix Children’s. Three years ago, Phoenix Children’s came down five times a week.
“The problem is they’ve cut it down to one day a week, and they’ve charged us more than they did when they were five days a week,” Volkmer said.
By state law, counties are obligated to pay for forensic expenses in cases of crimes against children and sexual assault. Though victims are usually treated in Maricopa County, Pinal County pays for those exams because that is where the crime occurred.
If the new Maricopa Family Advocacy Center were to enter into a forensic contract with an outside source like Banner or Dignity Health, for instance, Pinal County would still have to pay for the exams.
“We actually met with the team there at Maricopa and said, ‘Look, if we get this up and running, would you be willing to give us first option to provide these services?’ And they’re very supportive of it,” Volkmer said.
By the County Attorney’s Office numbers, the county contracts currently cost $302,000 annually before Maricopa comes online. To meet the real demand, including five days a week coverage, would cost an estimated $644,560. The county believes the proposal for the FEO will cost $297,377.
Forensic exams cost a minimum of $875 in the Phoenix hospitals, according to PCAO.