Washington becomes first state to provide forensic exams for survivors of strangulation

A landmark piece of legislation is now law. On Friday, Washington became the first state ever to provide forensic nurses to examine survivors of domestic violence who have been strangled.

Non-fatal strangulation is a form of domestic violence that survivors and advocates say can be overlooked, and prosecutors say they can be more difficult cases to prosecute. But this groundbreaking new law could change that.

"In the four years I was with my abuser, I was strangled numerous times." said Markie Williams, a domestic violence survivor.

Williams said when her abuser would strangle her, her oxygen was cut off. She couldn’t breathe or scream for help.

"To make it worse he would frequently threaten to kill me while he was strangling me so I never knew if that was actually the last time if he was going to kill me at that time. My life was literally in his hands," said Williams.

She said the new law giving survivors access to a forensic exam for strangulation is a big step forward.

"We're finally recognizing that strangulation is a lethal form of abuse," said Williams.

A lethal form of abuse that officials say can be difficult to prosecute because unlike other forms of physical abuse, strangulation doesn’t always leave obvious marks.

"I cannot tell you how frustrating it was to read reports where the survivor wanted to hold her abuser accountable and the report would say slight bruising around the neck, and that was it. And that does not really articulate what happens in strangulation cases," said Washington State Senator Manka Dhingra.

Dhingra who sponsored the bill explains that forensic nurses who will perform these exams have specialized training that can help them collect evidence that regular medical personnel might not notice. Upping the chances of being able to prosecute the crime.

According to the law, a person who suffers from nonfatal strangulation is 750 percent more likely to become a homicide victim. And to get an idea of how often these cases happen, in 2018 there were 323 known cases of strangulation. 64 of those cases were seen at a hospital. Only four of those cases received a forensic exam, only because it involved a sexual assault.

Before the bill was passed, forensic exams were only offered to victims of sexual assault.  a strangulation survivor would have to pay for the exam out of pocket which officials say could cost over a thousand dollars. Under the new law, the exam will be covered. 

"The abuser can abuse the victim frequently through this method and it’s less likely that it’s going to be caught, seen or heard by anyone the victim comes in contact with," said Williams.

She knows how hard it can be to get help period, so when survivors do go to the hospital, she says it’s important they get the best resources possible.

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