The 2017 resurgence of the #MeToo movement has once again sparked a global dialogue about how rape culture affects victims all over the world. It’s not hard to see why, statistics about sexual violence on college campuses, in the workplace, in the home, and even in the most prestigious of government offices, are astounding.
Today, many survivors feel more supported and have been emboldened to share their experience, “out” their abusers, and demand accountability. Yet, even when all possible action is taken, institutional roadblocks – together with a culture which does not treat sexual assault as a serious crime – still prevent the normal course of justice. One particular group of people affected and deserving of more attention are survivors of sexual abuse whose rape kits remain untested in storerooms of police departments across the United States.
Rape kits, or Sexual Assault Evidence Kits, are kits which include all necessary materials to perform a sexual assault forensic examination and store samples for testing. As evidenced by backlogs across the country, processing rape kits to compare against DNA in the national criminal database simply isn’t a priority. This is painfully ironic, as victims of sexual assault are often criticized by society for failing to report the crime or have an examination performed.
Rape kit evidence one of the most effective ways to bring an abuser to justice, but leaving them untested does more than deny justice—it implies that victims’ experiences aren’t valued, and that sexual assault and abuse isn’t something that is taken seriously by the police or by society at large.
The extent of the problem
According to an inventory performed by USA Today of 1,000 police agencies, 70,000 untested rape kits are currently sitting in storage facilities. With 18,000 police departments nationwide, it’s safe to say that number is much higher.
Earlier this year, a number of media outlets reported that most states have a rape kit backlog in the thousands, with North Carolina reportedly leading with close to 15,000. Some estimate the national backlog to be over 400,000.
As of 2017, Detroit had tested over 10,000 decade-old rape kits, leading to 1,947 investigations, 127 convictions, and the identification of 17 serial rapists. Survivors – a majority of whom are women – who have been previously failed by this system have begun to take a stand and are finally beginning to see justice. Well over a decade after her assault, Tracy Rios’ from Tempe, Arizona’s rape kit was tested and her attacker is now serving time in prison for the crime. “It was amazing to know I was going to get justice,” Rios shared with the Associated Press. Heartening progress; but a bleak picture for those seeking justice.
But why would a backlog exist in the first place?
“The first part of the backlog occurs when rape kits are collected and booked into evidence, but detectives and/or prosecutors do not request DNA analysis,” note the experts at End the Backlog, a program dedicated to bringing justice to victims who have been impacted by the prevalence of the backlog. “The second part of the backlog occurs in crime laboratory facilities, where rape kits that have been submitted for testing are awaiting DNA analysis. Many kits that are submitted to crime labs are not tested in a timely manner, creating the second part of the backlog.”
The bigger picture
The problem goes much further than the backlog of untested kits themselves, as there is a shortage of resources and staff to gather evidence in the first place. A rape kit cannot be gathered without specially trained forensic nurses to perform them — and only about 17-20% of hospitals across the country have a forensic nurse examiner on staff. In fact, across the United States, there are fewer than 3,000 certified sexual assault forensic examiners. The lack of trained professionals and hospitals equipped to perform these examinations makes the backlog even more astounding.
In most places around the country, it’s very likely for someone to go to the hospital in the wake of an assault only to be told there is no one available to perform an exam. Paired with the stigma still surrounding rape, this environment does not help survivors muster the confidence and courage to come forward for important medical care following an assault.
The importance of medical care following a sexual assault is not limited to securing evidence. There are health consequences as well: if a victim doesn’t have an exam in the wake of an assault, they won’t have access to drugs which are used to reduce the risk of STDs including HIV and hepatitis but need to be taken within a short period of time of the assault.
Moving towards justice
The rape kit backlog is a failure of the criminal justice system and other institutions to take sexual assault seriously, prioritize the needs of survivors, and hold offenders accountable for their crimes.
While the rape kit backlog must be resolved, the real problem lies in the amount of sexual assaults which occur. We, as a culture, need to be more aware of how we socialize men and boys and work on changing the way we talk about consent.
For the time being, this is still a battle being fought. While the #MeToo movement has made tremendous strides in allowing women and survivors to tell their stories, in some cases even bringing people to justice, we are only beginning the work that needs to be done on an institutional and societal level.
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