Evidence Ignored, Inaccessible – Rape Kits
Survivors of sexual assault deal with an immense amount of trauma and retraumatization. Survivors are encouraged to go to the hospital after an assault to get a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examination) to check for permanent bodily harm and collect evidence for a possible police investigation. However, despite the importance of this exam, the evidence collected, called rape kits, often go untested for up to years after the exam. Many are even destroyed without the survivor’s consent.
After learning about this gross misconduct, Congresswoman Maloney secured passage of the Debbie Smith Act in 2004 for the purpose of eliminating the rape kit backlog. While many states are making strides at lowering the backlog, hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain on the shelves of hospitals, labs, and police departments around the country collecting dust. This is absolutely unacceptable.
Senator Patty Murray, along with the Bipartisan Task Force to End Sexual Violence is working to pass a bill, the Survivors’ Access to Supportive Care Act (SASCA), to increase the amount of SANEs (sexual assault nurse examiners) in emergency rooms nationwide. Currently there are only SANEs in approx. 17 percent of emergency rooms, according to the International Association of Forensic Nurses.
Rape kit evidence is crucial information for survivors of sexual violence and communities as a whole.
The evidence can:
- identify an unknown perpetrator
- link crimes together, identifying serial offenders
- confirm the presence of a known suspect
- affirm the survivor’s account of the attack
- discredit perpetrators trying to dodge justice
- exonerate innocent people from wrongful arrest
- save communities millions of dollars.
Because of this important legislation, women are safer throughout our country. After testing, 11,000 rape kits, Detroit identified 46 serial rapists. This would not have happened without the Debbie Smith Act. Clearly, funding is critical. If we don’t put the resources behind proven crime reduction efforts like this, we send a message that rape is not a crime worth convicting.
– NOW-NYC President Sonia Ossorio at January 2014 press conference calling for the re-authorization of the Debbie Smith Act.
Untested Rape Kits
One city’s backlog is a threat to public safety in all communities across the country.
– Sarah Tofte, Joyful Heart Foundation
- Nationwide, over 181,00 rape kits are collecting dust instead of being used to stop rapists.
- This number is even missing data from 12 states that refused to participate in data collection.
- Each rape kit represents a survivor who went through the lengthy and traumatizing process of a SANE exam only for the results to sit on a shelf for what can end up being years.
How does this happen?
- Most jurisdictions do not have written policies outlining the testing of rape kits. Decisions are made on a case-to-case basis, with individual detectives having 100% discretion over the fate of a rape kit.
- This leaves cases vulnerable to law enforcement bias, such as victim-blaming and other harmful beliefs stemming from rape culture. Research has shown that members of law enforcement disbelieve victims of sexual assault more than victims of any other type of crime.
- A lack of understanding of how trauma impacts memory and behavior in law enforcement, as well as poor treatment of a survivor throughout the investigation process, can lead to either an officer or a survivor prematurely closing a case.
- A lack of resources in a jurisdiction could lead to untested kits, if sexual assault cases are a low priority. Rape kits cost approx. $1,000-$1,500 to examine.
Rape is a crime with one of the highest recidivism rates, meaning that every rapist is likely to attack again. If we are serious about ending the epidemic of rape in the country, ending the backlog is critical.
Read more here:
Rape Kits Destroyed
But before we can get to the step of rape kit testing, we need to make sure there is still a rape kit to test in the first place.
– Jennifer Li, Rise Now
Far too often, rape kits are destroyed without the consent of the survivor, on the orders of law enforcement or hospital officials.
Under current New York Public Health law, a hospital is expected to collect and store sexual offense evidence for only 30 days. Afterwards, it can be destroyed, unless law enforcement requests the rape kit, the survivor requests the rape kit be turned over to law enforcement
Retention of rape kits should not be contingent on reporting the sexual assault.
Not only does this put a survivor under an enormous amount of undue pressure outside of the the existing statute of limitations, but it also makes it harder, and sometimes impossible to prosecute sexual assault cases.
If a survivor decides to report their sexual assault after the minuscule 30-day time frame, and the hospital has thrown away their rape kit, the State has disposed of important DNA evidence, evidence of drugs, and/or evidence of lingering effects of violence. Subsequently, a survivor might never see justice.
Rape Kit Reform
It’s frustrating to know that a rapist could be walking free and a victim who suffered is further disrespected because a vital piece of evidence went untested.
– California Assemblyman Anthony Portantino
The right not to be prevented from, or charged for, receiving a medical forensic examination
The right to have a sexual assault evidence collection kit or its probative contents preserved, without charge, for the duration of the maximum applicable statute of limitations
The right to be informed of any result of a sexual assault evidence collection kit
The right to be informed in writing of policies governing the collection and preservation of a sexual assault evidence collection kit
The right to be notified at least 60 days in advance if a hospital, lab, or law enforcement establishment intends to destroy your rape kit
The right to override that decision.
In New York City
After New York City adopted the policy of testing every rape kit booked into evidence, the arrest rate for reported rapes increased from 40 to 70 percent.
NYC cleared its backlog of more than 17,000 untested rape kits just over a decade ago.
However, there are still almost 2,000 rape kits left untested in New York state.
Every single untested kit is a missed opportunity for justice and an open opportunity for an offender to rape again.
What is the backlog in your community?
Find out more about the rape kit backlog where you live here: endthebacklog.org
Courtesy of the Joyful Heart Foundation