The Backlog of Rape Kits in the US

published on 20 March 2021
<b>Photo of Kym Worthy by TED Conferences</b>
Photo of Kym Worthy by TED Conferences

By Denise Yan

In August of 2009, 11,341 rape kits were found in Detroit police department’s abandoned warehouse.

“Some of them went back to the 1980s...These kits were spilling out of large, black garbage bags and empty oil drums. Each kit represented a victim, mostly a female, that had suffered a violent sexual assault…”

Prosecutor Kym Worthy

In her heartfelt Ted Talk, Prosecutor Kym Worthy reported that all of those kits were untested. Sexual violence is without a doubt a never-ending crime, especially as one of the most common offenses in the United States. Enormous amounts of reports are taken every day, but how well does the US treat these situations? With evidence of discarded cases and ignored victims, this problem continues to grow. Through the past years, the conversation about backlogged rape kits has become a relevant topic with increased media coverage and bills protecting women’s safety. However, women are still a big target for sexual abuse, and their justice is still not secured even when evidence from rape kits are taken.

The stammering amount of untested and forgotten rape kits is known as backlog. To be clear, a rape kit is the container in which information from the assault is stored, and an untested rape kit is one that is not put under forensic analysis, linking DNA to the attacker. A rape kit is considered to be part of the backlog when it has been untested for thirty days when received at a testing lab. Surprisingly, the US does not have a clear act or mandate requiring the tracking or rape kits; due to loosely worded protocols they have been turned a blind eye to— on this note, it’s impossible to tell how many kits are tested, lost, and discarded. The Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping sexual violence victims, estimated that there were more than 225,000 untested rape kits since their EndTheBacklog initiative in 2010—they also believe that there are other hundreds of thousands still not found. 

To illustrate the process in which these kits are placed, the initial step is to understand the process of the exam and the delicacy of it. Sexual assault forensic exams, or more popularly referred to as rape kits, are (in best cases) taken right after the crime and up to three days after. While exams may take up to hours, patients are allowed to pause or stop as they see fit, allowing the victim to recover. During the exam, a specialty nurse or forensic examiner will take DNA swabs and inspections of the victim's whole body, as well as record questions about the assault itself. Because of the sensitivity of the situation, victims are urged to avoid showers, changes of clothes, and even using the restroom. According to RAINN, rape kits consist of a range of items including the victim's clothes, urine, and even hair samples.

The big question is why the backlog happens; the common issue to highlight is the lack of resources available. The amount of staff available is limited because only special nurses or doctors can perform a sexual assault forensic exam; these nurses are called Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) or Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners (SAFEs). Additionally, to become a SANE, numerous skills and experiences are required— even more so when training for subcategories such as SANEs for adults/adolescents (SANE-A) and SANE pediatrics (SANE-P). Similarly, even some DNA labs are short-staffed. Treatment for sexual violence (court fees, medical fees, etc.) costs an arm and leg at an average of $122,461 per victim. When managing rape kits, most police stations, and DNA labs cannot afford to conduct DNA tests. To illustrate the cost, Detroit’s abandoned 11,341 rape kits would have cost up to $1,500 each to test in 2009. As stated before, rape kits are not required to be monitored or kept track of, and depending on the staff and allocated time available, these kits may be left in the care of police stations with no tests done for long periods. Part of the responsibility also lies on the police themselves, as sexual assault cases may not be a priority to them. Bias and personal beliefs also come into play in terms of the victim. In many cases, victims are dismissed, gaslighted, believed to be lying, or are attacked with other forms of victim shaming. In the situation where a rape kit is tested, the effectiveness of the evidence still relies on whether court cases use them or not.

Although this information seems grim, many legislations have been passed to protect these victims’ rights. In 2014, former President Obama signed the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), which is a program that grants federal funding for states for rape kit reform. SAKI and the Bureau of Justice Assistance have already funded over $200 million since their initiative in 2015. Likewise, former President Trump passed a bill to continue funding for rape kit testing through the Debbie Smith Reauthorization Act in 2019— the Debbie Smith Act of 2004 allocated 151 million dollars each year for the testing of backlogged rape kits. A portion of this fund is for educational use to train nurses and programs on DNA testing as well.

Legislation is doing more than just addressing the backlog problem— across the decades, several acts have been put in place to support women’s safety in general. The Violence Against Women Act of 1994 put laws in place to make treatment easier for victims of abuse, establishing free sexual assault forensic exams, including any treatment of STIs or injuries. To further protect women, the act also banned convicted abusers from buying firearms and requires them to surrender any firearms owned, as well as covering protection for transgender victims, undocumented immigrants, other minority groups, and even affected male victims.

Many victims find it hard to go through with these examinations, however, being tested has major benefits. If a victim’s rape kit is tested, it increases the possibility of justice for them in court, as well as justice for other victims since the attacker’s DNA is now known in the national database (CODIS). Perpetrators are more likely to be identified this way and will be connected to more cases in the future. Getting examined also gives the victim a heightened sense of relief. Now that the evidence is gathered, the victim has more time to choose whether or not they want to report the crime—in most cases for minors, the examiner will report the crime for them. Additionally, when going through this process, examiners and nurses will treat your injuries, as well as addressing any STD transmissions, all free of charge. RAINN provides thorough information about sexual assault forensic exams.

As a result of Prosecutor Worthy and her team’s hard work, all of the 11,341 abandoned rape kits found in Detroit have now been tested. From January 2015 to May 2016, Worthy began working with UPS on a program to track rape kit locations and statuses using technology.

 “For the 16 months of this project, we didn't lose a single rape kit. Not a single one. We knew where they all were.”

Prosecutor Kym Worthy

Spreading education and awareness about this crime is the first step towards the goal of stopping sexual violence before it starts. In the same way, eliminating victim shaming is fundamental in providing support and protection for the victims that reached out for help because the bottom line is that sexual violence, as a whole, is still a wildly underreported crime because of today’s rape culture. The process in which these victims endure is more than what meets the eye and it’s not a surface level matter. Even with gathered evidence, justice for victims is more often abandoned than not. Thankfully, the epidemic of backlogged rape kits is attracting more attention because of the women that are fighting for their rights, and with advances in technology, treatment for victims are changing in the future as well.

Published on February 4, 2021.

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