Tosha Blackburn told herself not to cry as she stood in front of the nine members of the House Labor Committee.
She wasn’t nervous. She had recounted her experience in that Casper doctor’s office so many times before: to detectives, to prosecutors, to a courtroom full of strangers.
She told the committee of Wyoming lawmakers what she told police, how the touching during that September 2015 medical exam was unlike anything else she had experienced with previous doctors. She told the committee that he sexually assaulted her.
Her voice cracked. She took a few deep breathes to hold off the tears.
Then she pressed on. She explained why House Bill 157 was necessary to better protect future patients.
It was the first time the 30-year-old Casper photographer had spoken in front of a legislative committee. Before that 2015 doctor’s appointment, she didn’t pay attention to politics. But after that appointment, she started to research other doctors who sexually assaulted their patients, how a culture of silence in the medical community protects abusers, how medical licensing practices conceal misdeeds in other states.
Blackburn could no longer opt out of the political system. She couldn’t stand idly by.
“I wanted there to be more protections than what I had,” she said Friday, two days after Gov. Matt Mead signed her bill into law.
A long road
Wary of public attention and the criticism it often brings for survivors of sexual assault, Blackburn started her effort at her computer keyboard. In 2016, she emailed each of Wyoming’s 90 legislators and three Congressional representatives. She explained what she reported to police. She explained how certain parts of state law complicated her case, like how the statutes do not officially recognize physicians as a “position of authority.”
Beside a few impersonal, canned responses, she didn’t get any replies. In January 2017, police arrested Dr. Paul Harnetty on 12 charges that alleged he sexually assaulted six women, including Blackburn, during medical exams.
Blackburn emailed the group again, retelling her story and pointing to his arrest. This time, she got a response.
Rep. Debbie Bovee, D-Casper, and House Speaker Steve Harshman, R-Casper, wrote back. Blackburn met with Bovee a few months later and the two discussed the email and potential solutions.
“She’s the one who brought it to the forefront,” Bovee said of Blackburn. “She’s the one who said ‘All of this terrible stuff happened and I don’t know what to do.’”
But before the Legislature heard Bovee’s bill, Blackburn sat through five days of trial. She was one of six female patients to testify that Harnetty sexually assaulted them. A jury found him guilty of two charges of second-degree sexual assault, though they acquitted him of four other charges, including those connected to Blackburn’s allegations.
Despite the frustrating outcome to her criminal case, Blackburn continued in her advocacy for legislative action.
On Feb. 5, Bovee and eight other lawmakers sponsored House Bill 96, which would have required a third party in the room during exams of genital areas and altered the process used by the medical board to grant physician licenses, among other changes.
“Then the medical community came uncorked,” Bovee said.
Medical groups opposed the mandate to have a chaperone, among other specifics in the bill, Bovee and Blackburn said. So Blackburn and a group of lawmakers met with representatives from the concerned groups to reach a compromise.
It was a civil discussion, Blackburn said, and all sides were heard. After the meeting, Bovee withdrew the original bill and replaced it with House Bill 157, which included some of the provisions of the first.
The replacement bill sailed through the chambers. The House passed it 52-5, and the Senate passed it 29-1. Bovee said that it likely helped that the legislative session began only two weeks after Harnetty’s trial and the high-profile sentencing of a former doctor who sexually abused young gymnasts, including a number of Olympic competitors.
“It was an issue that everyone was aware of,” she said.
Mead signed the replacement bill into law Wednesday. Blackburn and her 6-year-old daughter were there as Mead put pen to paper, as months of work became concrete change.
“I think Tosha is an amazingly brave young lady,” Bovee said. “Very much now everyone knows what happened to her. I think she’s taken this criminal act and has decided to make something good happen.”
The new law gives health care licensing boards, like a medical or nursing board, the ability to discipline a health care provider if there is “clear and convincing evidence” that the person has committed sexual misconduct. The law defines sexual misconduct as any exchange of medical services for a form of sexual gratification or any sexual contact that occurs while the patient is under the provider’s care.
The law also strengthens criminal penalties for medical providers convicted of sexually assaulting a patient. It adds medical professionals to the list of roles that qualify as a “position of authority” that also includes relatives, teachers and employers. Medical professionals can also be charged with second-degree sexual assault for any sexual contact with a patient during an exam or any other procedure to treat a physical or mental condition.
The law also bars health care providers from expunging a conviction of misdemeanor sexual battery from their records and allows the medical board greater leeway in punishing physicians who exploit their position of trust.
Finally, the law mandates that all licensing boards related to health care providers review their existing rules, especially regarding use of chaperones, and create new regulations if necessary to better protect patients.
“There are things they seriously need to look at,” Blackburn said. “It shouldn’t take a victim to come forward for them to do so.”
Both Bovee and Blackburn said there was much more work to be done, both in Wyoming and on a national level.
Both would like to revisit a regulation that requires a chaperone during any exam of a genital area — a section of the original bill that was stripped out of the revision.
They’d also like to change how medical boards investigate complaints against doctors. Too often, both women said, investigations by boards stop when a doctor agrees to give up his or her license. The investigation is then never completed the results are never made public, or even accessible to other medical boards where that doctor may be applying.
“It’s a start,” Blackburn said. “It’s not the end-all-be-all. I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘I’m done.’ There’s more to do.”
Blackburn — a woman who once considered herself apolitical — has since weighed running for political office or working more formally in victim advocacy. She hasn’t ruled out the possibility, but wants to focus on raising her daughter and the next slate of bills to help protect patients.
She’s also still processing what happened to her during that exam in September 2015. Doctor visits of any kind continue to make her anxious. The sterile rooms, the squeaky floors, the crinkly paper on top of the exam table bring her back to that day. Her husband accompanies her to every appointment. It’s embarrassing, she said. It makes her feel childish.
She’s still learning to feel safe again. Every day, she continues to confront the question: How do I move past this?
Being part of the team who made House Bill 157 become law has given her purpose as she navigated the grueling criminal justice system, as she confronted her trauma day in and day out, as she sat through the trial.
Perhaps her daughter will learn from her example and will know that she too can enact change. If nothing else, it’s good to know she’s part of the solution.
“It’s helping me heal,” she said. “I’m not just sitting back and letting these things happen.”