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The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 1

The CSI Effect

textrib-rapekits-003Crime shows on TV make it look so easy. You see investigators talking with the weeping victim, and then the scene cuts to someone walking in with coffee in one hand and a file folder in the other. The results came back from the lab and they’ve got a match. Unfortunately, in real life, evidence collection and processing after a sexual assault is often a traumatic, time-consuming procedure, fraught with prejudice, victim-blaming, and political pressures.

What is a Rape Kit?

A “rape kit” is shorthand for the process that a survivor can choose to undergo within 72 hours of a sexual assault to preserve evidence that may link the perpetrator to the crime. Essentially, the survivor’s body is the scene of the crime, and a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) collects samples of anything that might contain DNA or other physical evidence, such as swabs of the mouth and genitals, the survivor’s clothing, and brushings from the survivor’s body. The SANE nurse also takes pictures and documents any injuries. Samples of the survivor’s blood, saliva, and hair (both head hair and pubic hair) are taken to compare to any other evidence found. The survivor’s full medical history as well as an account of the assault is recorded. The rape kit collection usually takes four to six hours to complete, during which time the survivor is discouraged from eating, drinking, or using the bathroom. The evidence is then packed up in a box and handed over to law enforcement.

In North Carolina, if the survivor is not filing a police report right then, the box is put in storage for up to one year and can be retrieved if and when the survivor decides to press charges. If an investigation is opened, the DNA collected from the survivor’s body can be compared to the DNA of a suspect if there is one, or entered into the national DNA database to see if there is a match with anyone already known to law enforcement. DNA can confirm known suspects, identify unknown suspects, or eliminate suspects from the investigation.

The Scope of the Backlog

It is estimated that around the country, over 400,000 rape kits are sitting on shelves unprocessed. The exact number is unknown because few police precincts or crime labs keep data on the rape kits they process or have waiting in storage. How does this pile-up happen? Despite what you might think from watching CSI, this evidence is time-consuming and costly to put through the crime lab. Each rape kit costs between $900 and $1,600 to process, and if the prosecutor or police feel there is not a solid-enough case to prosecute the perpetrator, the kit may go untested, even if the survivor files a police report.

While this may seem fiscally responsible to some, it has devastating consequences. An investigative report by the Cleveland Plain Dealer revealed that the majority of the kits that were not processed were collected from survivors who were minorities, had mental illnesses or disabilities, were homeless, or were sex workers. In essence, survivors were profiled by police and prosecutors for their “believability” (or lack thereof), and in some cases the survivors themselves were not even interviewed before the cases were closed. Tragically, law enforcement was using the same kind of profiling used by rapists to prey upon society’s most vulnerable.

What is being done?

In the past decade there have been public and political appeals to end the rape kit backlog. Several pieces of legislation, such as the Debbie Smith Act and the SAFER Act, have been passed to understand the scope of the backlog and allocate funding to help states process kits.

In the next post, we will explore the successes and challenges in the quest to end the rape kit backlog, as well as what is happening here in North Carolina. Stay tuned!

Read Part 2 here.

Rosemary Byrnes is a summer intern at the Center while she works toward her Master in Social Work degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. She works with the client services team to support survivors in our community.

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