This is part two in a series of articles that will explore the issues surrounding violence against women in America.
In part one of this series, I briefly outlined some of the appalling statistics about sexual assault and domestic violence in this country. As it often happens, I had an idea percolating for part two when the topic defined itself. Across the news waves, stories started to appear about an incredibly important issue that is not only the subject of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit’s (SVU) episode tonight but also is being tackled on Capitol Hill and in cities across the country: the rape kit backlog.
What They Are and Why We Need Them
Following the life-shattering and traumatic experience of rape, a victim can choose to have a rape kit conducted at the hospital to collect forensic evidence against the perpetrator. This rape kit can identify the assailant, corroborate the victim’s account of the assault, connect DNA in a string of attacks from a serial rapist, and exonerate innocent suspects. Without such evidence, it is nearly always impossible, sans a confession or some other concrete evidence, to prosecute these crimes.
The exams themselves last four to six hours and only continue the trauma for the victim. But the assumption and motivation is that the poking and prodding and further violation will lead to justice.
The atrocious reality for these courageous victims, is that too often their brave decisions are in vain. Law enforcement agencies across the country are allowing countless shelves of rape kits to collect dust in their basements.
Take these statistics from Human Rights Watch.
- Over 200,000 rape kits sit untested in police storage in the United States.
- Testing rape kits leads to more arrests. New York City’s arrest rate for rape jumped to 70 percent from 40 percent when it began testing all rape kits.
Or this from CBS news:
“…Police in Detroit have 5,600 untested kits, with another 3,800 in Houston,1,100 in Albuquerque, and 5,100 in San Antonio. At least 12 major US cities, from Phoenix to Columbus, have no idea how many rape kits languish untested in storage.”
Linda Fairstein, former chief prosecutor of the New York County District Attorney’s Sex Crimes Unit and best-selling crime novelist, wrote in her article for “The Daily Beast,” “…These assailants are believed to commit eleven rapes for every one to which they are formally linked. Even more powerful is the fact that by finally matching offenders to the old evidence and taking them to trial, crimes like rape and murder can be prevented.”
Awareness and a Remedy
It is abhorrent enough that rape is a frequent offense against women in this country. It is unthinkable that so many victims have the courage to undergo the violation of a rape kit only for law enforcement to fail the very people for whom it should be working.
The good news is that the issue is one that can be fixed. New York City in 2000, announced a funding program to outsource the testing of rape kits, which numbered 16,000 at the time. The program eliminated the city’s backlog.
The issue is getting attention in the nation’s capital, too. Human Rights Watch (HRW) is pressing the federal government to implement legislation that will eliminate the backlog by requiring testing. The organization’s efforts worked in Los Angeles in 2009; by lobbying local governments and police departments to test the 12,500 untested kits, the LAPD moved to require testing for every rape kit. You can read the full report here.
SVU star, Mariska Hargitay, who plays the award-winning role of detective Olivia Benson, is raising awareness of the issue both by talking to the media and tackling it with her organization, The Joyful Heart Foundation.
On her blog, she gives the tragedy a human face: “These kits represent human beings who have suffered greatly. Testing their rape kits sends victims the fundamental and crucial message that they and their cases matter.”
“Often, the first step to bringing change to an issue is to shed light on it,” she acknowledges later. That’s where we come in.
What You Can Do
Tune into Law and Order: Special Victims Unit tonight on NBC at 9:oo p.m. EST to hear one woman’s true story. Follow the work of Joyful Heart Foundation that will announce a new public awareness effort on these issues next week. And go to HRW’s website and donate or sign up to receive information about taking action and lobbying Congress.