Rape Kits: Still Not Being Tested

The LA Times op-ed page, of Heather MacDonald “What Campus Rape Crisis?” (actual title) notoriety, has actually published a responsible piece about rape. It’s called “Lost Promise for Rape Victims” by Sarah Tofte of Human Rights Watch, and is about the infuriating and heartbreaking fact that hundreds of thousands of rape kits in America are not being tested. And she exemplifies the injustice by describing the grueling process that is rape kit collection.

The process — which can last more than four hours — begins in a private interview room, separate from the hospital emergency room, where a counselor asks in detail what happened during the rape. The counselor is there throughout the subsequent examination.

If I were a rape victim, I would next be led into the exam room and asked to undress while standing on a large sheet of butcher paper so that anything that falls from my clothing or body that may provide links to a perpetrator or a crime scene (hairs and carpet or clothing fibers) can be carefully collected and placed in the rape kit.

I would be examined on a gynecological table with stirrups. My body would be scanned with an ultraviolet light to find otherwise undetectable semen or saliva that might contain the assailant’s DNA.

[. . .]

If I were a rape victim, the police officer on duty at the center might drive me home with the rape kit in the patrol car. I might imagine that the police were taking it directly to the crime lab to test the samples for DNA that could identify my assailant or provide evidence against an already identified suspect.

The part that really got to me is the image of the ultraviolet light. Of course, I absolutely understand the necessity of it, and how it would be an outrageously useful tool. But as I generally come at these things, I can’t help but look at this from the standpoint of the survivor. And (as a survivor who did not report) the thought of seeing my rapist’s bodily fluids on me under that light sends chills up my spine.

And after going through all that? Forget the relatively low chances of the kit turning up useful evidence, resulting in an arrest, a court date and then a conviction. The kit most likely won’t even be cracked open.

This isn’t exactly news to those of us who do anti-rape advocacy work. But it tugs at me every time I hear the horrible fact repeated. Clearly, it’s not being repeated enough because the problem isn’t being solved. People still either don’t know, or just don’t care.

The National Institute of Justice estimates that at least 400,000 rape kits are sitting untested in police stations and crime labs across the country. In the city of Los Angeles alone, more than 7,000 sit in refrigerated storage in a city warehouse facility and a trailer behind police headquarters. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department likely has its own backlog, but the sheriff has never disclosed its size.

Law enforcement officials blame a lack of resources — for starters, they need more crime lab staff. But it’s hard not to surmise that the problem is, in reality, a matter of priorities. Among L.A. City Council members, only Jack Weiss has insisted on budget increases to address the rape kit backlog. This year, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rejected the LAPD’s funding request to hire more crime lab staff.

If I were a rape victim, I might never know whether my rape kit was opened. I might assume that silence from the police meant that the crime lab just didn’t find any DNA, or none that identified my assailant. Although not every tested rape kit yields a database match, when New York City processed all its backlogged rape kits in 2003, the effort led to about 2,000 hits.

Tofte is absolutely right, and good on her for speaking the truth — this is a question of priorities. Rape which fails to involve a stranger, weapon and a beating just isn’t seen as a crime that’s “bad enough.” It isn’t seen as a crime — and perhaps rightfully so — that is likely to result in a conviction. Far too many people (indeed, a troll I had this morning) still think that women who claim rape are very likely to be making shit up, and that includes those in law enforcement. In fact, anecdotal evidence shared with me on a regular basis tells me that cops can be some of the worst “bitch is lying” offenders.

The op-ed ends this way:

The morning I visited the Rape Treatment Center, three women came to report that they had been raped and to get care. They consented to the extensive, lengthy exam because they had entered into a pact with the police: We will submit to this collection of evidence, and you will submit our rape kits for testing.

I wish I hadn’t known the likely fate of their rape kits — to sit on a shelf, frozen and unexamined. If I were a rape victim, that news would be devastating.

Yet again, Tofte is right, and she makes an important point. When a victim officially files a criminal report with the police, they are doing it under an implicit contract that the police will do something about it. When submitting to a rape kit collection, women are working under the assumption that their kit will go somewhere and will work towards prosecuting their rapist. It’s unrealistic to expect that undergoing rape kit collection will necessarily result in a conviction — but it’s entirely valid to expect that police will do the best they can with the evidence they have. It’s nothing new for police to violate the trust of those they’re most supposed to protect. But it’s still unforgivably wrong.

One argument which pops into my mind is that articles such as these will only deter rape victims from making reports, and are therefore irresponsible. In a general sense, I would agree that less reporting is a bad thing — but I would argue that those who have been raped have already been violated enough. And they deserve to be told the truth and to make an informed decision about the stressful and emotionally difficult process of evidence collection. Why put survivors through that while giving them false hope, knowing their evidence will most likely remain untouched for years or perhaps forever? Why, other than for our own moral satisfaction and better data collection? There is no good reason. I’m not discouraging those who have been raped from reporting. I’m not encouraging anyone else to discourage, either. But it’s wrong to encourage reporting by encouraging lies.

cross-posted at The Curvature


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26 comments for “Rape Kits: Still Not Being Tested

  1. Pingback: More on Rape Kits
  2. Bitter Scribe
    July 1, 2008 at 11:57 am

    It’s hard to imagine an aspect of police work where you’d get more bang for the buck than processing rape kits. As both an investigative and a corroborating tool, it’s invaluable. What is the freakin’ problem?

  3. July 1, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    The process — which can last more than four hours — begins in a private interview room, separate from the hospital emergency room, where a counselor asks in detail what happened during the rape. The counselor is there throughout the subsequent examination.

    This unfortunately depends wholly on the resources in your area. I’m a sexual assault advocate where I live, and can be paged to meet survivors at the hospital– I’ve never heard of a hospital here having counselors available in the ER. There are social workers, but that promises nothing (oh man, I have some stories you would not believe). It’s bad enough that only one hospital has SANE (sexual assault nurse examiners) nurses who’ve gotten some training in bedside manner along with the collection the forensic evidence. As an advocate, I always encourage the survivor to get checked out after the assault, but I never push for the forensic exam. Besides the fact that it’s her choice, the exam incredibly invasive, so unless a survivor feels strongly about getting it, I’m not going to push something that often feels humiliating and more traumatic.

    Which makes the fact that these kits are sitting oh shelves untested and ignored that much more unforgivable.

  4. July 1, 2008 at 1:26 pm

    How many states other than my own require rape victims to pay the bills of the forensic exam?

    Talking about adding insult to injury.

  5. Rose
    July 1, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    It’s a travesty that these are going untested. Just think about all of the rapists that they already have on file where they could add more time onto their sentences. Or people who, if they were caught for another crime, could also be charged for rape when their DNA profile lands a match!

    What a travesty. Thanks for posting this. I intend to look into whether this is happening in my area of the country, and maybe write some LTEs about it.

  6. Miaow
    July 1, 2008 at 2:31 pm

    You know why this happens? Because men generally don’t get raped, and men generally run the whole damn process from reporting to, if you’re very very lucky, what happens in court. Proof if we need any that the people determined to keep patriarchy alive and kicking don’t give a fuck.

  7. July 1, 2008 at 3:36 pm

    That’s horrible, and really saddening to hear. However, this isn’t limited to rape. When DNA testing is available in a crime scene, it’s only processed about 1/3 of the time. Ever hear about those cases where DNA testing was used to free someone who’s been sitting in jail for a long time? Ever wonder why it just wasn’t used in the first place? I recall a story about a man named Stephan Cowan who was convicted on the grounds of fingerprinting and eye witness (both *very* unreliable). He was freed after 6 years, when he personally earned enough money in prison to pay for his own DNA testing.

    The fact that DNA testing isn’t processed in rape has nothing to do with the patriarchy, or people not caring about rape. It’s just generally not processed because it’s just too damn expensive and time consuming.

  8. July 1, 2008 at 3:55 pm

    The fact that DNA testing isn’t processed in rape has nothing to do with the patriarchy, or people not caring about rape. It’s just generally not processed because it’s just too damn expensive and time consuming.

    Funny how we somehow found the money and time to go to war with Iraq, isn’t it?

    I think our priorities (which are affected by patriarchy and people not caring about rape) have a lot to do with what gets paid for and what doesn’t.

  9. ACS
    July 1, 2008 at 4:03 pm

    It’s hard to imagine an aspect of police work where you’d get more bang for the buck than processing rape kits. As both an investigative and a corroborating tool, it’s invaluable. What is the freakin’ problem?

    I’m going to disagree.

    The police usually have the important part before the DNA goes off to the lab.
    It’s the preliminary stages of the rape investigation — in particular, the report written by the SANE on things like vaginal tearing, bruising, and restraint marks — that’s the important piece evidence. This is because, in general, perpetrators won’t deny that they had sex. They’ll merely deny that they committed rape.

    In that case, the DNA results are superfluous; they merely serve to reiterate what the cops already know: that there was some sort of sexual contact. Bruising, tearing, and restraint marks, on the other hand, confirm the complaining witness’s account of what happened. This being the important part.

    Don’t take this to mean that the DNA in every case where the perpetrator doesn’t self-identify shouldn’t be tested — just that there’s a good reason not to waste resources testing DNA when dude’s already admitted that his DNA is going to be found.

    — ACS

  10. purpleshoes
    July 1, 2008 at 4:28 pm

    I am, unfortunately, a law enforcement office monkey right now, and I will agree that it is both a question of funding and a question of priorities. I will also note that we send a giant crate of urine in specimen jars off every week to see if some poor probationer has been toking (or, to be fair, if someone’s still on the meth and about to explode their house), and we get our results back in about a week. It’s expensive, but every probation office in the state does it.

    Isolating DNA is harder than urinalysis, mind (I am an occasional reader of this fascinating forensics blog, which has several entries about how exactly you do it) but. There is a whole lot of testing going on in law enforcement – especially on the corrections end – and I wouldn’t mind seeing some money slip from pothead persecution to catching some damn rapists.

  11. Bitter Scribe
    July 1, 2008 at 4:51 pm

    ACS–I take your point about how DNA would be superfluous if a suspect has been identified or is known to the victim. I was talking more about stranger rape.

  12. July 1, 2008 at 4:55 pm

    At times like this I wonder if it would be possible for us to organise and get some training to deal with processing these kits. Obviously most of us won’t be able to participate in something like DNA sequencing, but surely, there’s got to be a way we could turn volunteer manpower hours into at least a basic examination of the kit. The stat about New York boggles.

  13. Leah
    July 1, 2008 at 5:02 pm

    Not to mention, at fridge temperature, biological samples have a limited shelf life (think about it; even refridgerated milk goes bad). Hundreds of thousands of samples have been lost and are being lost unnecessarily due to mold, bacteria, etc etc in the samples, which destroy DNA (not to mention even pure DNA is not indefinately stable at fridge temp).

    Heck, they don’t even have to do the full DNA analysis to ensure the samples are preserved. (entering molecular biologist mode) To do a “DNA Analysis” there are basically 3 steps: 1. DNA isolation 2. DNA amplification (PCR) 3. Gel electrophoresis and imaging. After steps 1 and 2, DNA samples can be frozen and stored at -20 (normal freezer), -80 (deep freezer) or in liquid nitrogen. Samples will last decades at -20, and indefinately at -80 or in liquid N2. Step one is the cheapest step; cheaper than drug testing. Step 2 is the most expensive, followed by step 3. SO. Crime labs could relatively easily isolate all DNA from a rape kit, then store it in a freezer until/if the victim/survivor (or DA)chooses to pursue charges (it might surprise some of you, but as a former rape crisis counselor, many v/s who get a rape kit do not intend to bring charges; the standard procedure is to keep their kits “on ice” until/if they decide to pursue; those that do intend are usually brought to the front of the line, so to speak). Then, relatively inexpensively, all samples could be preserved indefinately without any loss of evidence.

    I do wish, however, that all samples could be processed and run through a database, if the v/s authorize it. I don’t think it would be fair to them to simply do so without their permission, because if there is a hit, and the police or DA choose to pursue it, the v/s must bo through the process of reporting and possibly testifying, even if they did not want to, which would be a retraumatization.

  14. Leah
    July 1, 2008 at 5:08 pm

    Edit: “I don’t think it would be fair to them to simply do so without their permission, because if there is a hit, and the police or DA choose to pursue it, the v/s must GO through the process of reporting and possibly testifying, even if they did not want to, which would be a retraumatization.”

  15. July 1, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    I have to disagree with ACS.

    Just because that DNA isn’t necessary to convict if there is evidence and a known assailant doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable.

    The value come in when the next woman he rapes who doesn’t know him files a complaint and they get a match on the DNA. That’s one of the big points behind DNA testing in rape cases, not just to prosecute that case, but to prosecute future cases that may come up, especially if the low-life didn’t get convicted or even caught the first time around.

  16. July 1, 2008 at 6:05 pm

    The value come in when the next woman he rapes who doesn’t know him files a complaint and they get a match on the DNA. That’s one of the big points behind DNA testing in rape cases, not just to prosecute that case, but to prosecute future cases that may come up, especially if the low-life didn’t get convicted or even caught the first time around.

    Exactly — or previous offenses. Instead, we’ve probably got a bunch of rape kits sitting in storage with DNA samples from the same guy, only some have an identity match and some don’t. That’s invaluable evidence.

  17. July 1, 2008 at 7:10 pm

    This was my comment on The Curvature, however I will post it here as well since most of the traffic seems to be hitting here and this is clearly an important topic for me.

    While I do not discount the validity of the numbers quoted in this piece, I do hope it is not a blanket statement on how sexual assault evidence is (or is not) processed across the nation. I also hope it is not a blanket statement on the priorities of law enforcement officers on the whole.

    This is my job. 80-90% of the evidence that I process is sexual assault evidence. I am only one of four other DNA analysts responsible for well over thirty counties. It is incredibly difficult to keep our heads above the water.

    Bottom line, there does need to be more funding. It is not a cop out. It is hard to secure that funding…not just for forensic science institutions, but for science institutions in general.

    In addition, I have to disagree with the following from Leah:
    “Not to mention, at fridge temperature, biological samples have a limited shelf life (think about it; even refrigerated milk goes bad). Hundreds of thousands of samples have been lost and are being lost unnecessarily due to mold, bacteria, etc etc in the samples, which destroy DNA (not to mention even pure DNA is not indefinitely stable at fridge temp).”

    The only biological evidence stored at fridge temperature is the blood sample (victim or subject…and even this evidence is stored in the presence of a preservative) and it is only stored under such conditions until it can be archived. The remaining evidence (provided it has been air-dried either in the field, at the hospital, or following submission to the lab…yes, on occasion this step is done incorrectly) is infinitely stable. Therefore, more funding means the sexual assault evidence that has been untested can indeed eventually be tested.

  18. July 1, 2008 at 8:01 pm

    Well…perhaps I should add an additional clarification as far as the storage of biological evidence. The entire sexual assault kit is indeed stored in the fridge until the blood sample can be archived. However, again assuming proper collection of the remaining evidence (vaginal swabs, anal swabs, oral swabs, etc.), which includes both air-drying and package in paper not plastic…then the evidence is indeed maintained with integrity. If this was not the case, The Innocence Project would not be the successful endeavor that it is.

  19. July 1, 2008 at 8:11 pm

    One argument which pops into my mind is that articles such as these will only deter rape victims from making reports, and are therefore irresponsible. In a general sense, I would agree that less reporting is a bad thing — but I would argue that those who have been raped have already been violated enough. And they deserve to be told the truth and to make an informed decision about the stressful and emotionally difficult process of evidence collection

    Not only that if we know what is going on we take action against. Sitting in ignorance will not cause any kind of change in the system.

  20. Casey
    July 1, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    I remember doing DNA analysis my junior year in high school (5 yrs ago) and that’s what got me into biotech in the first place. Nothing too hard, and mind-blowingly inspiring

    I know there’s all sorts of training and security checks that have to be done before doing police forensic work, but I can tell you right now that if an opportunity to go through all that to help test those kits came up, I would leave all that I have – job, brand new apartment, friends, life – to do something that would help others in such a vulnerable and scary situation.

    Also, big thanks to purpleshoes for linking to SarahQuibbling’s blog (http://sarahq.livejournal.com/tag/forensics) – love it. :)

  21. July 2, 2008 at 12:20 am

    Ever hear about those cases where DNA testing was used to free someone who’s been sitting in jail for a long time?

    Yeah, we had one recently where two teens sat in jail for four years for a murder they didn’t commit. They were put there by a cop’s informant and the D.A. sat on DNA test results that would have cleared them for 18 months which relatively speaking, isn’t that long. I remember talking to all the attorneys trying to figure out what was going on and then reading the prelim transcript and kicking myself for not reading it earlier b/c it was clear in the transcript they had the wrong guys. The DNA was done in a group of eight and identified two other older men as the probable killers.

  22. July 2, 2008 at 9:32 pm

    I also would like to address the comment by Pixelfish which says: “At times like this I wonder if it would be possible for us to organize and get some training to deal with processing these kits. Obviously most of us won’t be able to participate in something like DNA sequencing, but surely, there’s got to be a way we could turn volunteer manpower hours into at least a basic examination of the kit. The stat about New York boggles.”

    As an analyst, I would love to have someone doing the initial evidence screening. However, I just don’t think that there is a sufficient understanding of what comes after that is done. It is all well and good to say why not extract the DNA from all those samples and maintain them for long term, eventual testing. The ability to do such a thing is simply not feasible without more funding. I find that the point of lack of funding is being missed here. A straight-forward DNA case takes at best two weeks. Heaven forbid we are talking about a multi-exhibit, multi-subject case. At that point we are talking about one month plus.

    It is easy to get upset at the lack of testing of sexual assault kit. I understand that. However, let’s not forget that in the end, a lot of life comes down to money. It costs easily over $1000 to process an “easy” case. No, there should be no price tag on justice. But, there is a price tag on everything. Let’s not just say “do more testing”. How about we all say, “let’s get more money”. Sexual assault is a violent crime. It is no less violent than a homicide. The difference that society seems to put on the crime is (1) no life is lost (I use that loosely because certainly a life, as it once was, is lost) and (2) women surely must “ask” for what they get.

    I hope I do not come across as minimizing sexual assault and the backlog of testing. I simply do not want everyone to buy into the idea that it is inherently by choice that these kits are not getting testing because I assure it is not the case.

  23. July 5, 2008 at 8:08 pm

    I came over here because of Mike the Mad Biologists’ comment; and this story illustrates how badly our priorities have been screwed up in the wake of 9/11. It’s not just a joke for “Family Guy,” it’s a problem of spending inordinate amounts of money invading the privacy of people who may or may not commit a crime in the future at the expense of prosecuting criminals who have all ready committed a real crime.

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