A new study from the Government Accountability Office has exposed an alarming deficiency in the investigation and treatment of sexual assault. The report, which examined six states across the country, discovered a major shortage of medical examiners conducting forensic exams on sexual assault victims, commonly known as rape kits. Reasons for this shortage ranged from a lack of training to low pay for examiners, all of which force victims — particularly in rural areas — to drive hours in order to get proper treatment and testing. The insufficient availability of rape kits is yet another disappointing reality in America’s poor record of dealing with sexual assault and victims.
Rape kit procedure involves collecting and analyzing DNA from bodily fluids, examining any injuries, as well as providing emergency contraception and testing for sexually transmitted infections. For obvious reasons, timeliness is a key element of rape kits — the longer it takes to access one, the more likely that the evidence could be compromised. If this procedure is performed and evaluated accurately, it can be an invaluable tool in potential criminal proceedings. The lack of availability and consistency of medical examiners has the converse effect of making prosecution for sexual crimes far more difficult and less likely.
Of course, even when rape kits are collected accurately, there is a massive obstacle when it comes to the their actual testing.There is a national backlog of untested rape kits that have been sitting in storage for years, a number estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. Testing a rape kit costs approximately $1,000, and has only just become a priority to the government, with advancements in DNA technology and the growth of national awareness and education of sexual assault. That being said, further growth is only possible through increased funding for medical examiners and DNA analysts.
These efforts have proven successful; in 1999, New York City began testing its backlog of 17,000 rape kits, and in four years eliminated it, resulting in 2,000 DNA matches and 200 cold case prosecutions. New York continues to be an exemplary model, with a strict protocol of testing kits within a day or two of their arrival at a crime lab and maintaining a 60-day turnaround for results. But this is success is by no means capable of being universally recreated.
As with most governmental problems, the issue here is rooted in both a lack of funding and resources, as well as a lack of awareness. As the nation works to prevent and combat sexual assault, we must also work to better provide for the victims of these crimes. Increased accessibility to everything from accurate rape kits to emotional support can bolster a dialogue and spur the healing process for victims and their advocates.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 25 print edition. Email Annie Cohen at [email protected]