Elinor Smith

HELENA (UM Legislative News Service) -- The House of Representatives on Monday unanimously passed a final amended version of a bill aimed at solving both medical staffing and investigative issues in sexual assault cases, especially in rural and tribal communities.

The bill has never received a vote against it, in committee hearings or floor votes in either the House or the Senate and it is now one vote away from the governor’s desk for his signature.

House Bill 79 would do two things: First, it would expand sexual assault nurse examiner, or SANE, training to rural areas where survivors of sexual assault now sometimes need to drive hours after their assault without showering or changing clothes to get help from a trained medical professional. It would also provide these areas with telehealth services.

Then, it would create a team of professionals within the Department of Justice whose job it is to process and prosecute sexual assault cases across the state. 

After the House passed the bill to the Senate, the Senate amended it to add a member with tribal affiliation to the team of professionals at the DOJ. 

Rep. Amy Regier, R-Kalispell, is the sponsor of House Bill 79

“They wanted to add -- who has experience working with Indigenous survivors to those that are on the task force for the SANE nursing program. It is a friendly amendment and I ask for a due pass,” Regier said during debate on the bill in the House Monday.  

Sen. Jen Gross, D-Billings, proposed the amendment. She said she heard concerns at the bill’s hearing in the Senate Judiciary committee over the program's ability to help Indigenous survivors with the same level of care and understanding. 

“This Legislature has done a great job of working to create programs which address Indigenous people who experience violence. In Montana, we know that this is an issue and the lack of SANE services in rural communities and in tribal communities means that not all members can access services on the reservation and must drive hundreds of miles, if not hours to a hospital,” Robin Turner, representing the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said at the hearing on February 3. “But to a survivor, none of this matters in the moment. They require trauma-informed and culturally appropriate care after they've been assaulted.” 

The entire program would cost the state just less than $150,000 a year according to the fiscal note attached to the bill. The bill has drawn support from the Department of Justice, law enforcement officials and healthcare professionals.

They all said that this program could help people who have been assaulted in the state find justice in a prosecutorial sense but also help them recover physically and emotionally. 

According to a report from the Montana Department of Crime Control, reported rapes have increased 10% since 2016 in Montana.