Sexual assault is all too common in the United States. Frustratingly, so is the failure to properly investigate sex crimes by testing forensic evidence collected following the horrific incident via rape kits. Each year, hundreds of thousands of rape kits go untested. This backlog not only prevents identification and prosecution of perpetrators, it also endangers the community and robs victims of justice. Last week, the Congressional Task Force to End Sexual Assault was a tour-de-force in bringing legislative attention to the issue of state-level rape kit backlogs. From the opening statements to the final comments, the two-hour, bipartisan panel consisted of leaders in sexual assault prevention and response advocacy, including Dr. Jenifer Marowitz of the International Association of Forensic Nurses, Richard A. Bell, a chief of special investigations, and Law & Order SVU’s Emmy award winning actress Mariska Hargitay, founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation. In their opening remarks, each esteemed panelist touched on core issues surrounding untested rape kits and the significant negative consequences of this backlog on victim advocacy and perpetrator prosecution.
One important topic discussed at the roundtable is the crucial role that Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE Nurses) have in proper victim response. The panelists emphasized how nurses are often one of the first interactions a survivor has after an attack of sexual violence, going on to describe how their response in treating a survivor after an attack has an incredible impact on entire recovery, both physically and emotionally. SANE nurses undergo extensive and specific training on sexual assault and are therefore best equipped to treat survivors in the aftermath of the traumatic incident. Statistically, treatment by SANE nurses is overwhelmingly associated with increased prosecution rates, which considering their access to support services, education and awareness, is no surprise. Troublingly, the panelists shared that only 17 percent of hospital emergency departments have trained SANE nurses on staff.
Many of the roundtable statements centered around intensely personal testimonies by both survivors and professionals with years of experience in the field. In addition to these personal narratives, Bell, a prosecuting attorney in Cuyahoga County, mentioned the economic benefits of testing all rape kits. Consider the stats: the prosecution of 543 defendants convicted for other crimes (such as armed robbery, battery and arson) cost the state approximately $440 million annually – upon swabbing, these same defendants matched DNA from rape kits which sat untested for years. Crunching the numbers, each rape kit that undergoes testing saves the state roughly $8,000 a year. Clearly, in addition to safety and justice, the economic incentives for testing each rape kit promptly are significant.
Overall, the roundtable conversation centered on the theme of survivor-focused advocacy. The panelists organized their experiences and goals into four pillars of best practice: (1) test all rape kits, (2) swab all felony arrestees, (3) investigate all rape kit reports and (4) uphold a victim-centered approach every step of the way, from evidence collection to prosecution to recovery resources. Each year, survivors, professionals, practitioners, and experts get together for the annual best practices summit to discuss ways in which to best prevent and respond to sexual assault.
It would have been difficult to attend this roundtable event and not feel moved and inspired by the powerful testimonies given by each of the panelists. Sexual assault is a horrifyingly common occurrence that has lasting impacts on survivors, their families, and communities. Rape kit testing is one important step in both advocating for survivors and preventing future incidents, and each panelist impressed upon the attendees how our response to survivors is just as important as the mechanics of the investigation and prosecution process. SurvJustice takes this issue seriously, as the rape kit backlog is a concerning obstacle in increasing the prospect of justice for survivors. As Hargitay put it, “These are not just kits on a shelf – they’re lives derailed, waiting for answers.”
Authored by Hannah R. Leisman, SurvJustice Legal Intern
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