Dani Pinkus

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Breakdown: End The Rape Kit Backlog

Breakdown: End The Rape Kit Backlog

Every 1 in 3 women will experience sexual assault. In the following 72 hours, your body is a crime scene eligible for a rape kit.

What is a rape kit? A sexual assault forensic exam that collects and preserves DNA evidence. It can be collected from your skin, inside of you, your clothing, and other nearby items that may have been affected by the assailant, using medical materials presented and preserved in the form of a kit in a hospital or clinic. This process is often called a “rape kit.” Despite its familiar name, this exam can address other assaults as well.

Seeking medical attention following assault may be imperative to your health. Doctors and nurses can treat topical harm, test for first signs of sexually transmitted infections, and administer or prescribe emergency birth control or other needed medications. The more you can avoid before arriving at the hospital, the better. Though it may go against your instincts, refraining from using the restroom, cleaning up affected areas, and changing your clothes will help provide more accurate information. Regardless, you can still go through the rape kit process.

Why to: The rape kit process is intended to give control back to the victim and provide tangible proof, should you choose to report what happened to you. It is never a requirement, and you can decline any part of the exam as it is happening. Even if you follow through with the kit, you are not at all obligated to *report your exam or legally charge your assailant. But if you ever change your mind, having this evidence will likely bolster your case. If you don’t prosecute the assailant, the information you provide can still link multiple cases together and potentially strengthen another victim’s case. Plus, it won’t cost you. The Violence Against Women Act requires that this exam be free of charge.

Why not: Despite its intentions, this process can further traumatize a victim, especially since you are only eligible following the assault. And, even if you are willing to put yourself and your body through the rape kit process, there’s a good chance it doesn’t get tested. That’s to say, you will likely not receive results in a timely or necessary manner - or at all.

What is the rape kit backlog? The backlog references untested rape kits. Experts estimate hundreds of thousands untested kits, although there is no national data to account for these numerically. What we do know, is that these kits can remain on storage shelves for years and even decades, and in many cases are thrown out to make space in evidence rooms. Without DNA proof, many perpetrators cannot be physically corroborated, and the wrongfully accused cannot be set free.

This backlog exists because of how society approaches sexual assault and violence against women. Victim blaming plays a vital role in how we think about assault on a federal level. Plus, the cost of testing a rape kit is between $1,000 and $1,500. We do not allot enough funding for this resource, nor do many labs accommodate the necessary equipment.  

When victims take the step to seek medical answers following their assaults, those individuals deserve answers. We, as a society, tell victims that we do not value their experience and their safety when we disregard the tangible proof of what happened to them.

Sample Rape Kit by Lux Alptraum via  Splinter News

Sample Rape Kit by Lux Alptraum via Splinter News

A personal take: Following her assault, one woman did what few victims do and went to a hospital for a sexual assault nurse exam (SAN). “It’s hard to find the words to appropriately describe how excruciatingly violating it feels to go through it,” the anonymous source said, recalling her experience of laying stark naked on a reclining chair while nurses probed at her body. She was told the whole thing would take a couple of hours, but instead was at the hospital waiting for at least five. “I was doing it because I had so many unanswered questions about what had happened to me the night before,” she said, “I needed to know the truth.”  

“I didn’t get my results until over a year later,” the source lamented. The results of her kit reflected unmatched DNA samples that were used against her by the perpetrator’s lawyer. Over two years later, this victim is still battling her case. “Luckily, I had the resources and support system to advise me to go straight to the hospital for the SAN exam,” she said, “but I can now see firsthand why so many victims don’t report or press charges for the assaults or rapes that they endure - it’s extremely emotionally taxing.”

Another perspective: A second anonymous source shared their account, unknowingly having missed the time frame for a rape kit. “If I could go back in time,” they said, “I still don’t think I would have gotten a rape kit or pressed charges - I was always fearful of the boy spreading rumors or that I would be forced to change schools if people didn’t believe me.”

Where our society should support and believe survivors, this victim was deterred by our justice system. “I never wanted him to have that kind of power,” they concluded.

Current action: “Beyond the obvious threat to public safety, beyond the wasted opportunities to both prosecute the guilty and exonerate the wrongly convicted, the backlog sends a devastating and inexcusable message to survivors: You don't matter. What happened to you doesn't matter,” said Mariska Hargitay, actress, activist, and founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation and End the Backlog initiative. Through her leadership, the non-profit has helped pass 34 laws for rape kit reform across the U.S. so far.

Some state stats: Rape kit requirements and attention vary from state to state. In California, for example, there are currently 13,615 untested rape kits and counting. There is a tracking system in place to notify patients of their progress, but testing in this state is not mandatory.

A prosecutor in Michigan reported that testing 10,000+ backlogged rape kits helped to identify at least 833 suspects linked to more than one sex crime. Experts admitted that evidence for a murder would never be discarded, but that sexual assault is handled differently than other violent crimes.

When New York City tested 17,000+ backlogged rape kits in 2003, their arrest rate for rape went up from 40% to 70%

In 2018, California legislators proposed a bill allocating $2 million for the required submission of new rape kits for DNA analysis within 20 days and a full scope of testing within 120 days. Despite having passed the legislature unanimously, then-Governor Jerry Brown vetoed it. This bill has now been reintroduced with the opportunity to reach current Governor, Gavin Newsom. We have the opportunity once again to make this necessary action a reality. And we can do that by showing we care.

What you can do: Not all survivors benefit from a rape kit exam. But those who choose to go through the process deserve genuine care and follow through. We must commit to taking crime against women seriously. So what can you do?

  • Educate! Share this page or End The Backlog’s site and engage with friends and family. Too many people don’t know about the backlog, let alone what a rape kit even is.

  • Write! Contact your state officials and members of Congress. SameSide makes it easy with a pre-written e-mail and just one click.

  • Text! California people, text “BACKLOG CA” to 52886. Contact our Governor, State Senator, and State Assemblymember with a pre-written e-mail thanks to SameSide.

  • Give! Support End The Backlog’s efforts by donating.

  • Collaborate! Partner with organizations like SameSide. Host an event to bring a fun experience to your community with a kick of social justice.

x Dani Pinkus

National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800.656.4673

*If you are under the age of 18, the person performing the rape kit exam may be obligated to report your assault.

Photo by of Sofia Zabala courtesy of SameSide

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