Author: Ashley Benedict
Rape Kit Backlog
DNA evidence has become a critical factor in achieving justice for victim/survivors of sexual violence, but there are still challenges in the way evidence is collected, stored, tracked, and used to hold perpetrators accountable. The overwhelming backlog of DNA evidence is currently one of the biggest obstacles to prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence.
The backlog of unanalyzed sexual assault forensic exam evidence is often referred to as the DNA backlog or “rape kit backlog.” The source of the backlog is complicated and multi-layered, but there are two main sources:
DNA evidence is a critical factor in identifying, prosecuting, and convicting perpetrators, but in some ways, the effectiveness of DNA evidence has been the source of its biggest obstacle. As DNA evidence proved to be a useful tool in both investigation and prosecution of sex crimes, collecting this evidence became standard procedure for law enforcement agencies across the country. Today, all 50 states and the federal government collect DNA from perpetrators convicted of certain crimes. An increasing number of states have expanded their laws to collect DNA from people arrested or accused of certain felonies and, in some cases, certain misdemeanors. In addition, DNA evidence can be collected directly from crime scenes and during sexual assault forensic exams.
Sexual assault forensic exams
You may have heard the term “rape kit” to refer to a sexual assault forensic exam. The term rape kit actually refers to the kit itself—a container that includes a checklist, materials, and instructions, along with envelopes and containers to package any specimens collected during the exam. A rape kit may also be referred to as a Sexual Assault Evidence Kit (SAEK). The contents of the kit vary by state and jurisdiction and may include:
- Bags and paper sheets for evidence collection
- Documentation forms
- Materials for blood samples
Preparing for a sexual assault forensic exam
If you are able to, try to avoid activities that could potentially damage evidence such as:
- Using the restroom
- Changing clothes
- Combing hair
- Cleaning up the area
It’s natural to want to go through these motions after a traumatic experience. If you have done any of these activities, you can still have an exam performed. You may want to bring a spare change of clothes with you to the hospital or health facility where you’re going to have the exam.
In most cases, DNA evidence needs to be collected within 120 hours in order to be analyzed by a crime lab—but a sexual assault forensic exam can reveal other forms of evidence beyond this time frame that can be useful if you decide to report. Place your belongings, including the clothes you were wearing, in a paper bag to safely preserve evidence. If you have questions about the time frame, you can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or talk to your local sexual assault service provider.
The length of the exam may take a few hours, but the actual time will vary based on several different factors. It may be helpful to have someone to support you during this time. If you call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) or contact a local sexual assault service provider, you may be connected with an advocate who can talk to you about the examination and offer support. The advocate may also be able to accompany you during the actual exam. Be aware that if you invite someone other than an advocate into the exam room, they could be called as a witness if you decide to report the crime.
What happens during a sexual assault forensic exam?
The steps below outline the general process for the exam. Remember, you can stop, pause, or skip a step at any time during the exam. It is entirely your choice.
- Immediate care.
- Head-to-toe examination.
- Possible mandatory reporting. If you are a minor, the person performing the exam may be obligated to report it to law enforcement. You can learn more about mandatory reporting laws in your state through RAINN’s State Law Database.
- Follow up care. You may be offered prevention treatment for STIs and other forms of medical care that require a follow up appointment with a medical professional. Depending on the circumstances and where you live, the exam site may schedule a follow up appointment, or you can ask about resources in your community that offer follow up care for survivors of sexual assault. Someone from the exam site may also be able to provide information or resources about reporting options.
Who can perform the exam?
Not every hospital or health facility has someone on staff that is specially trained to perform a sexual assault forensic exam and interact with recent survivors of sexual assault. When you call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE (4673) you will be directed to a facility that is prepared to give you the care you need.
- Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) — registered nurses who receive specialized education and fulfill clinical requirements to perform the exam
- Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners (SAFEs) and Sexual Assault Examiners (SAEs) — other healthcare professionals who have been instructed and trained to complete the exam
Why should you consider having a sexual assault medical forensic exam?
How long will the evidence be stored?
The amount of time an evidence kit will be stored varies by state and jurisdiction. A SANE, advocate, or law enforcement officer should let you know how long the evidence will be stored and the state’s rules for disposing the kit. It’s important to note that the amount of time the kit is stored doesn’t necessarily match up with the amount of time that legal action can be taken against a perpetrator, also known as the statute of limitation. If you have questions about timing, statutes of limitation, or any other concerns, contact your local sexual assault service provider.
In Michigan, for sexual misconduct in the first degree, there is no time limit to commence legal proceedings against the perpetrator of the crime; for second, third, and fourth degree offenses, legal proceedings must take place within 10 years after the crime.
What’s the benefit of having a sexual assault forensic exam?
What happens to DNA evidence?
Once DNA is collected, there is a protocol for how the evidence is handled and used in an investigation. The evidence can be provided to law enforcement who are legally required to send it to a crime lab. The lab will analyze the material and develop DNA profiles that are unique to a specific person. The lab works with law enforcement officials to compare these profiles to the DNA of potential suspects. If the perpetrator is unknown, they may compare the DNA profile against a large database run by the FBI called CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System. This way, they can identify suspects that the victim doesn’t know or isn’t familiar with.
Communicating with law enforcement
When you’re talking with law enforcement, it can be helpful to know what to expect and to understand their process. You may only interact with law enforcement when you report, or they might ask you to stay involved with the investigation over a length of time. Knowing what your rights are and when to raise your hand can help you feel more in comfortable and in control:
- You should have privacy.
- It may take a while.
- You can take a break.
- You can go up the chain.
- You can have support.
- A trained advocate. When you call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, the sexual assault service provider in your area may be able to connect you with an advocate who is trained to support you while you talk to law enforcement. Some law enforcement agencies also have trained advocates available.
- Someone you trust. If you want a family member, friend, or partner to be present, you can have that too. Be aware that family or friends who are present when you speak with law enforcement may be called as witnesses if the case goes to trial. If the officer asks to speak with you privately, understand it’s likely to help you feel comfortable disclosing information that may feel private or sensitive. You can refuse this request.
Here are some general notes and tips about reporting to law enforcement
What goes into the report?
When law enforcement files a report, it includes the case tracking number and a written narrative based on the interview(s) with the victim. According to the International Association of Chiefs of Police, some aspects of the report will include:1
Why don’t some victim/survivors choose to report?
Of the sexual violence crimes reported to police from 2005-2010, the individual reporting gave the following reasons for doing so:
- 28% to protect the household or victim/survivor from further crimes by the offender
- 25% to stop the incident or prevent recurrence or escalation
- 21% to improve police surveillance or they believed they had a duty to do so
- 17% to catch/punish/prevent offender from reoffending
- 6% gave a different answer, or declined to cite one reason
- 3% did so to get help or recover loss
Of the sexual violence crimes not reported to police from 2005-2010, the individual gave the following reasons for not reporting:
- 20% feared retaliation
- 13% believed the police would not do anything to help
- 13% believed it was a personal matter
- 8% reported to a different official
- 8% believed it was not important enough to report
- 7% did not want to get the perpetrator in trouble (Remember that most sexual assaults occur by someone the victim/survivor already knows)
- 2% believed the police could not do anything to help
- 30% gave another reason, or did not cite one reason