Rape kits: Who has access, who gets results?

Yesterday the Washington Post had a piece on the backlog of untested rape kits in the U.S.

Rape kits can help identify unknown assailants by matching DNA profiles obtained from evidence to profiles in the FBI’s national DNA database. The kits can confirm the presence of a known suspect’s DNA, corroborate a victim’s version of events or exonerate innocent suspects.
Most states are not required to notify victims if their evidence has not been tested, so people usually have no idea whether their kits have been processed. Many victims assume that silence from the police means that their kit did not yield helpful information. A much-delayed National Institute of Justice report on the state of the rape-kit backlog is due to be submitted to Congress in the fall; experts on the crime expect it to show that a significant backlog remains.

(What’s in a rape kit? The Denver Post did this graphic to explain.) This is an issue that many, many local newspapers have covered, stating the backlog numbers in the local community and (usually) highlighting one survivor’s frustration with the system. But there’s been little national action on this issue in several years.
It’s not only the processing of rape kits that’s at issue — it’s access. Some women have been denied them altogether. Take this story from last year about a Howard University student who was repeatedly denied rape kits at several DC hospitals.
I’d really like to know more about how rape-kit processing works. Is there a queue, where every new kit is just added to the line? Or is this a situation where uninsured and other women at a disadvantage in the medical system get shunted to wait in line, while others can jump ahead and have their kits processed right away? Does it matter what sort of attorney you have prosecuting your rape case? I’d love to hear from someone who knows more about this.
In the meantime, take action! The Post had some great suggestions for how Congress can start fixing this situation. Write your Senators and Representatives ask Congress to:

  • Require that states that receive grants to use at least 30 percent of the money to pay for testing backlogged rape kits
  • Build in accountability by requiring that states report how many rape kits are tested annually
  • Lift restrictions against states using the grants to pay private labs for DNA testing; crime lab directors across the country have cited this as a reason that they have not applied for or been able to fully spend their grant money
  • Remove an amendment that would require states to expand their DNA databases to include all felons and certain arrestees. Adding people who have not been convicted of any crime to DNA databases raises civil rights and civil liberties concerns, adding unnecessary controversy to the program.
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15 Comments

  1. dckatiebug
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 11:30 am | Permalink

    I worked at a campus-based crisis hotline in Massachusetts. Here, kits won’t be process, and will in fact be destroyed, unless the survivor calls to activate the process within 6 months of having the kit performed. The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners that I’ve spoken to indicate that most survivors who have kits performed won’t take the next step (police report and kit processing).
    All this by way of saying that while I think the Washington Post article shows some flaws in the system, it may not apply to the situation in every state/community.

  2. followingthru
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 11:34 am | Permalink

    First, the procedure for rape kits is going to vary based on what state you are in, because criminal laws vary and prosecutorial practices may even vary from county to county.
    I live in IL, and I’m relatively certain that when a rape is reported and the victim agrees to it, a rape kit will be used, and then given to the police. The police will then send it to one of the state’s crime labs.
    I do not deal with rape kits too often, as I work mostly with misdemeanor offenses. I know that when the sort of evidence I do regularly deal with is sent to the lab (blood testing for alcohol/drugs, testing to see if a substance is an illegal drug, etc.), unless there is a rush order (for a trial date, most likely) the back log for testing those items can be as long as 6 months, easily.
    The crime labs are overwhelmed with work. And, whenever tested material is used at trial, the lab technician that tested it has to appear and testify, adding to the backlog problem.

  3. Danyell
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    I’m sort of amazed that this article was written. I think its something that people need to know. I just hope it doesn’t keep women from reporting their rapes because they feel its futile.
    For a country that puts a lot of stock in our legal system, we rarely do maintenance or back it up with proper funding.

  4. werechick
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Can’t we fund this shit? As much “tough on crime” rhetoric as we all hear, can’t they just fund this shit appropriately?
    I expect that, even if they don’t have a suspect identified, they should test the DNA and run it through the system to find any possible match, and run it against other people’s rape kits so that they can spot any matches there, and help spot serial rapists.
    I realize it’s not as quick as it seems in TV crime shows, but honestly, if they can afford to put people with non-violent drug offenses in jail for $30k/year, surely they can spend some money to get violent criminals off the street, so we can all breathe a little easier.

  5. salamander
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know how rape kits are queued, but as a MD I am positive that it has nothing to do with health insurance status. The physician (who usually doesn’t know or care what the patient’s insurance status is either) collects the samples and hands them off to law enforcement. The kits are labeled with identifying information (eg name, date of birth) but any sort of medical billing information like insurance status is not transmitted to the authorities, as it is irrelevant.
    This is very sad- the hospital where I work has a specialized team dedicated to caring for sexual assault victims precisely so that no mistakes will be made in the collection of samples, or in documenting how/when the rape kit changed hands. We do this assuming that law enforcement will treat the kits with the same care we do. Unfortunately, that does not seem to be the case.

  6. avtorres
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I work at a Sexual Assault Center and there is ceratinly an access issue from state to state. Recently in GA we have passed legislation that allows victims to have a forensic medical exam (rape kit) with or without reporting to police or cooperating with police. This has not always been the case and so many victims who maybe didn’t want police involved were left without any options to have the rape kit done. Since law enforcement is required to pay for the exams, this led to LE choosing whether or not to “authorize” exams or not. Which of course brought all kinds of horrible situations where “certain kinds of victims” like those who may be less likely to be belived by LE were not being given access to rape kits/evidence collection in their cases.
    As a result of this legislation, victims can now choose to not report to police, still have evidence collected, and have 12 months to decide whether or not to pursue their case before the evidence is destroyed. However, there are still parts of the state and around the country where victims are still paying for their own forensic evidence exams! When cops dust for prints at a robbery, we certainly don’t charge the victim for that cost, but here we are with victims footing the bill.
    There are also issues with the backlog at crime labs. Often if a detective doesn’t think its a strong case to pursue or bring charges, they will not process the rape kit at all. As I understand it, if it is a case with strong coorborating evidence, witnesses, evidence from SANE etc…the detective does have some control over how fast those kits are processed by the state crime labs. This really is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of problems with this issue.
    That being said, I also think we put too much stock in forensic medical exams to “prove” what happened instead of first believing victims and really using creative strategies to actually investigate these cases rather than relying on whether the evidence came back positive of forced sex. The evidence collection is just oen part of the puzzle, one investigative tool. The entire case should not center around that one thing and often I feel it does. What if the evidence wasn’t substantial, that certainly doesn’t mean a rape didn’t happen, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways of proving it, yet many detectives take the crime lab results to mean that there is no case worth pursuing.

  7. Genie E.
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Unfortunately, I have no direct knowledge about how rape kits are processed. However (and avtorres mentioned this in the post above), I worked at Women’s Abuse and Homeless shelter and learned that victims in North Carolina shoulder some (or sometimes all) of the cost for the rape kit to be done.
    As far as I know, sexual assault is the crime that requires the victim to pay for collection of evidence.
    Some articles involving North Carolina’s practices regarding rape kits:
    http://news14.com/content/politics/596931/state-likely-to-pay-for-rape-kits/Default.aspx
    http://www.newsobserver.com/news/health_science/story/941202.html

  8. A male
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    “Remove an amendment that would require states to expand their DNA databases to include all felons and certain arrestees. Adding people who have not been convicted of any crime to DNA databases raises civil rights and civil liberties concerns, adding unnecessary controversy to the program.”
    I’d like to know how other people feel about this one. I see it as one way to help identify an unknown assailant. I also see merit in maintaining a database, so matches from other unsolved sex assaults (or other crimes) can be found, and investigations better coordinated, particularly when crimes and criminals may cross county or state lines.
    People have expressed my disgust about the other parts.

  9. LlesbianLlama
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 6:01 pm | Permalink

    “I worked at a campus-based crisis hotline in Massachusetts. Here, kits won’t be process, and will in fact be destroyed, unless the survivor calls to activate the process within 6 months of having the kit performed. The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners that I’ve spoken to indicate that most survivors who have kits performed won’t take the next step (police report and kit processing).”
    Does anyone know whether rape victims who have had rape kits performed in MA are notified of this? When I had one done in MA I wasn’t told anything about this. In fact, I was told my only restriction was to activate the process within the statute of limitations window. They ended up giving me the runaround about my case anyways, and intimidated me out of taking steps toward. I was only a young teen, and had no idea what my rights were or anything. However, this happened more than 6 months after the kit was done, and no one ever let me know the evidence had been destroyed.
    I am just wondering if there is something they are supposed to tell victims so we can actually *know* the procedures. I guess that is too much to ask.

  10. wowcabbage
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Just to add another note, I live in North Dakota, which is a pretty conservative state. Just recently, there was a law passed saying that victims of a sexual assault no longer have to pay for their kits; that’s now paid for by the state.
    I work on a rape and abuse crisis line, and a volunteer and the police get called in every time there’s a sexual assault. The volunteer from the line is there to help the victim of the assault know what his or her choices are and to facilitate cooperation from the police and medical staff. The nurses are specially trained, so they’re aware of the victim’s rights and all, but you’ll occasionally get police officers who might not be aware of a victim’s desire (and right) to withold information. So, we’re there to basically tell everyone what they can and cannot do. I usually walk the victim of the assault through what the rape kit will consist of, let him or her know that he or she can stop at any time (but neither the victim nor the nurse performing the kit can leave the room until it is either finished or the victim decides he or she doesn’t want to complete the kit), he or she doesn’t have to report to the police, the counseling centers in our city, etc. I think having someone there who knows what’s going on is really helpful to these people, as I know that before my training, I had no idea what ND laws, procedures, etc. were.
    I don’t know how long the kits are held for or how long they take to process, as I’m only a crisis line volunteer and not a legal advocate. But this is definitely something that might be useful to my clients and I’ll be asking someone about the processes for the kits.

  11. Posted July 23, 2008 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    Related to this, NYC recently announced a new type of evidence collection kit that can be used on someone who is a suspect in a rape case, and also a new procedure for rape victims who are transported by ambulance.
    “Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg today announced that new Suspect Evidence Collection Kits will be used to collect physical evidence in New York City sexual assault and rape investigations. The new suspect kits, which will require the consent of the suspect or a court order, will make the collection of critical and time-sensitive evidence from suspects more routine. The Mayor also announced that under a new ambulance routing protocol, sexual assault victims now have the choice of being transported to hospitals with special care and counseling. In the past, emergency medical services teams have taken sexual assault victims to the nearest of the City’s 55 hospital emergency rooms. Now they can be transported to one of 11 public hospitals with Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART) programs or to one of 8 voluntary hospitals with an equivalent sexual assault program known as SAFE. The services provided include professional medical care, expert evidence collection and advice about bringing criminal charges against attackers.”
    The full press release from the mayor’s office is here

  12. dckatiebug
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 8:49 pm | Permalink

    LlesbianLlama: in my experience, the BARCC advocates do a good job of telling survivors about the kit being destroyed. While I don’t have a lot of experience working with minors, I do think that kits are kept longer in those cases (there’s a longer statute of limitations, I know for sure).
    Also, while the kits are supposed to be destroyed within 6 months, it doesn’t always happen. There’s still a chance that you could have the kit processed even after that window. A lot of it depends on how much space the lab has as the kits must be kept refrigerated.
    There were some changes to rape kit and crime victim compensation policy in MA this spring, and I’m not totally up-to-date on all the twists and turns. While some cases are mishandled, absolutely, the state has a lot on the ball in terms of covering the costs of the kit (though it sounds like they may be doing some of this by not attempting to process every kit unless a survivor is actually trying to press charges).

  13. jamesneysmith
    Posted July 23, 2008 at 11:39 pm | Permalink

    Is it just me or does the term ‘rape kit’ just not sound right. I mean, I think of a ‘kit’ as being a little plastic box full of toys that a 7 year old plays with in their backyard. I can just see Mattel producing, ‘Little Suzy’s Rape-Kit’ with which little girls everywhere gleefully play the part of ‘cootie detectives.’ I’m totally focusing on the wrong part of this article, i know …

  14. Posted July 27, 2008 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    I’m happy to report that Tennessee seems to be getting a lot of things right.
    (1) “Require that states that receive grants to use at least 30 percent of the money to pay for testing backlogged rape kits.”
    Not a bad idea. However, certain crime labs have backlog issues not due to sexual assault kits alone but to lack of personnel and that has to be addressed as well. Give all the money you want for processing of sexual assault evidence, but if there are only two people doing the work it doesn’t matter.
    (2) “Build in accountability by requiring that states report how many rape kits are tested annually.”
    That is actually a requirement in order to receive continued federal funding for backlog reduction.
    (3) “Lift restrictions against states using the grants to pay private labs for DNA testing”
    There has been a massive backlog reduction in TN due to access to federal grant money.
    (4) “Remove an amendment that would require states to expand their DNA databases to include all felons and certain arrestees.”
    I will have to disagree with this one. The DNA database addresses the concept of recidivism in violent crime. Address violent repeat offenders at the front end and you inherently help the backlog issue.
    I do wish more credit would be given to the fact that law enforcement, legislators, crime labs…people are trying to get it right.
    Right then, let me store my soapbox now and answer the actual question. Sexual assault kits received in the state lab are worked on a first come first basis unless a rush request is provided. That tends to happen only with violent unknown suspect or child cases. Otherwise, every case is worked with the same amount of respect. There is no charge to the victim. There is no charge to the submitting law enforcement agency. That fact gets lost in the uproar. The state lab is providing a free service so funding is always going to be an issue. Bottom line, submission of evidence is at the discretion of the law enforcement agency, at the willingness of the victim to prosecute, and can be based on how quickly the sexual assault evidence was collected.
    All things equal, when a sexual assault kit is submitted to the state crime lab, the kit is tested.

  15. bimama
    Posted August 5, 2008 at 1:53 am | Permalink

    I know the area crisis center has a sexual assault office staffed 24/7 and I really like that the entrance is in the rear of the building, away from view.

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