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Fixing The Rape Kit Backlog

By on Nov 6, 2015 in Creative Non-Fiction, Viewpoints | 3 comments

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Mariska Hargitay

MARISKA HARGITAY, STAR OF SVU

Once upon a time there were hundreds of thousands of rape kits moldering away on storage shelves, prey to dust mites and mushrooming mould. Those were the dark ages when rapes were ignored and overlooked. Thank goodness those times are changing.

Today a number of people are in the forefront of the war against rape; some of them are famous and well known like Mariska Hargitay, the star of :. Another is Lady Gaga, who was raped at age 19, and, unbeknownst to me, created TILL IT HAPPENS TO YOU, the theme song for the movie, The Hunting Ground. Click on the link to watch and listen. It’s a powerful rendition of lyrics that depict rape and the demoralizing consequences a girl suffers following it. The song and the video plaintively beg the understanding of those who doubt the reality of rape, who think of it as a sort of sex where the woman has regrets or changes her mind.

TILL IT HAPPENS TO YOU

Till it happens to you,

you don’t know how it feels, how it feels

Till it happens to you,

you won’t know, it won’t be real1  

The Hunting Ground2 is a documentary movie made by Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark, who were raped while students at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The two girls filed a Title IX complaint against the school as a result. It Happened Here3 is another documentary on the subject of rape on college campuses. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the song, Till It Happens To You, has been nominated for the Hollywood Music in Media Award and is potentially up for an Oscar and a Grammy. Lady Gaga has also co-written an essay with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in an effort to pass a new bill protecting the multitude of college students in New York.4

Other stars include President Obama, Vice President Biden, and New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance who, along with Mariska Hargitay, have been working on lessening the backlog of rape kits.

Detroit bldg

DETROIT LAB AND STORAGE BUILDING WHERE THEY FOUND RAPE KIT BACKLOG

The United States Department of Justice has estimated that there are somewhere in the range of 400,000 unprocessed rape kits in the United States.5 Fortunately, there are a number of people who have awakened to the fact that this is a serious problem. We can thank Louis Vitullo, a Chicago police sergeant who later became the chief microanalyst at the Chicago crime lab, for standardizing rape and sexual assault evidence and inventing the rape kit.6 The idea took hold and many police jurisdictions adopted the idea. The kit has various names around the country including but not limited to: the SAFE kit (Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence), the SOEC kit (Sexual Offense Evidence Collection), or the PERK (Physical Evidence Recovery Kit).7

Rape kits have been duly taken and stored for years but that’s as far as it got. Police departments lacked the funds to process them and many have been gathering dust. It was the backlog in Detroit that first dramatically brought the crisis to the attention of the American public. Detroit is bankrupt and some of the methods used to save money have been harsh in the extreme. As a result of some of these measures a storage building was closed in 2009 and it was then that the problem came to light.

In 2009, Wayne County (which includes Detroit), Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy’s office discovered 11,304 sexual assault kits in a Detroit Police Department property storage facility. The kits, which were collected between 1984 and 2009, were never submitted for DNA testing.

Faced with 11,304 untested sexual assault kits, Prosecutor Worthy applied for, and received, a grant from the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice. Prosecutor Worthy is dedicated to ensuring that: every kit is tested: every case is investigated; and that a victim-centered approach to the investigation of sexual assault is implemented at a state and national level.8

Although upsetting, it turned out that Detroit was just the tip of the iceberg. Other jurisdictions around the country, sometimes pushed by investigative journalists, started to look into what was happening in their own neighborhoods. They found that Detroit was not the only bad apple in the barrel. Almost the whole barrel was rotten. Most jurisdictions couldn’t say how many kits they had in their storage facilities; they hadn’t counted them.

The bulk of what we the public know about rape prosecution and conviction comes from Law and Order, Special Victims Unit, starring Mariska Hargitay. I watch the unit as they sensitively and intelligently interview the victim, as they go after the rapist/criminal and as they prosecute the perpetrator. Why do I love this show? Because they always believe the victim and treat her, and sometimes him, with respect and concern and they treat the rapist as a criminal. Yeah, I say. This is how life should be. Unfortunately SVU inhabits something of a fairy tale world. The reality of our justice system is harsh and imperfect.

Mariska Hargitay founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, a non-profit whose mission “is to heal, educate and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse and to shed light into the darkness that surrounds these issues.”9 One of its programs is End The Backlog, endthebacklog.org. End the Backlog collects data as it becomes available. You can visit her website to see if your city and state is listed and if there is any data currently available. They gather their information from newspaper and magazine article.10

I mentioned Joe Biden and Cyrus Vance. On September 10, 2015, Vice-President Joe Biden and New York City District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced a $79 million initiative to start to whittle down the backlog. Of that $79 million, New York County’s District Attorney’s Office provided $38 million and the Federal Government provided the balance or $41 million.11

I was curious about where District Attorney Vance got all that money. It came from large settlements reached with international banks that violated United States sanctions. BNP Paribas, HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank among others settled for a reported $800 million. Of that money, Mr. Vance used $240 million for local criminal justice programs, like providing computerized tablets to police officers and upgrading security in housing projects.

Mr. Vance said, “I’m saying today to all the women awaiting justice, you are not forgotten.” Together, the funds from Department of Justice (DOJ) and state of New York are expected to help test 70,000 untested SAKs (Sexual Assault Kits) in 43 jurisdictions in 27 states.”12 

Jurisdictions that wished to receive the largess had to do an audit of their respective backlogs and find a way to process them. The New York District Attorney’s Office has already distributed the $38 million but there is still about $11 million in Federal funds yet to be given out. Around $30 million has been distributed and there is a spreadsheet available of who got what. New York showed how many each jurisdiction had counted. The total was 56,475. There were no figures available for the Federal funds so I extrapolated the data. If you divide $38 million by 56,475 the answer is an approximate award amount of $673 per kit. The $30 million already distributed by the Federal Government divided by $673 is 44,577 so the monies already distributed is to cover testing for an approximate total of 101,052 rape kits, kits that have been languishing on shelves in various jurisdictions for years sometimes for decades. The original estimate was 80,000 but that was a low estimate. We now have well over 100,000 kits and can point to the federal estimate of 400,000 unprocessed kits. Right now that figure seems believable. A lot of jurisdictions haven’t done a count but it’s a start and the ball is moving. The following bar chart graphically depicts the data taken from two spreadsheets, one from New York and one from the Federal government. As you can see Michigan received the most money, followed by Florida. Check it to see if your state is listed.

Bar Graph

To simplify and to aid visualization, the bar graph above combines numbers from two sources: New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance’s office13 and the Federal Bureau of Justice Assistance.14

What can we expect to learn as the kits are processed and recorded in a national data bank known as the Combined DNA Index System or Codis? Quite a bit actually. Remember Detroit and the 11,304 rape kits found by Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy? By August 2015, Detroit had tested about 10,000 kits. In them, they found 2,478 DNA matches and were able to identify 487 potential serial rapists. This jives with what experts have been telling us. Most men don’t rape but some men rape over and over and over and it is these men, the serial rapists, who are dangerous. These are the men we want to identify, prosecute and get off the streets. Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, where Detroit is located, now has 21 convictions to their credit from DNA linked to crimes committed in 39 states and Washington, DC.15

In Houston, authorities cleared a backlog of nearly 6,700 kits — some dating back to the 1980s — and turned up about 850 matches in the national DNA database, Codis.16

So it isn’t only the jurisdiction where the rape kit is geographically located that profits from the testing; it’s the entire country. When looking at rape and sexual assault statistics, it sometimes seems that there are rapist everywhere and that a lot of men are rapists. This is not true. What is true is that there are many serial rapists out there and having a data bank can find them. If there is no punishment a serial rapist probably sees nothing wrong in what he is doing. We need to see these men punished. Only with them off the streets will women in general be safer.

Atlanta

Because it’s a big city and near to where I live, I chose Atlanta, Georgia as the city I would look at in depth. I discovered that on September 11, 2015, the day following the announcement of the initiative, Vice President Joe Biden and U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch announced that Georgia has won nearly $2 million to test rape kits from their backlog.

That $2 million went to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and is to be used for testing an estimated 3,100 kits from jurisdictions across the state of Georgia. Some of that money will go to test the backlog of kits that have piled up at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital since the year 2000. The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Grady withheld 1,500 rape kits from law enforcement, even when the victim requested that the test be handed over. Hospital staff also failed to report the crimes, despite a state law requiring it.17

After publication of the Atlanta Journal Constitution story in September 2015, Grady began to transfer kits to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation lab for storage. Grady Memorial is the only Rape Crisis Center in Fuller county; a county of over one million residents and it is where most rape and sexual assault victims go for the special exams. According to state law, hospital staff is mandated to report crimes to law enforcement. They have not done so.18

Grady Memorial Hospital wants to fix the problem or at least get the ball out of their court by getting a Memorandum of Understanding For The Transfer Of Forensic Evidence between themselves and the appropriate law enforcement facility signed. It would require law enforcement to go to Grady and pick up the rape kit within 72 hours. Grady would be responsible to notify law enforcement of the rape kit and to give a reminder call after 72 hours have expired.19

This is good news but it’s only a first step. Attitudes of police and all those associated with the legal process needs to change. We need to educate juries as to the definition of rape. We need to prevent defense attorneys from disparaging the victim in court. There is still a battle to be won. Another aspect of rape I would like to investigate are the various date rape drugs used to incapacitate girls and women so that they don’t remember what happened to them. Sex that uses a date rape drug is not sex; it is rape. I would also like to see a study done to find out why men and boys like to have sex with a comatose woman. If this is what they want then why do they need a real woman? Perhaps robots of the future will be able to suffice. Imagining what might happen in the future is a horror story. Let’s figure this out now. Let’s have equality for women and end the violence of rape and sexual assault.

Lastly a new survey of 150,000 students at 27 colleges concludes that 1 in 4 women will be assaulted in their lifetime not the 1 in 5 statistic that has been previously used.20

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  1. http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/ladygaga/tillithappenstoyou.html []
  2. The Hunting Ground is available for rent or purchase at amazon.com []
  3. I watched It Happened here on Netflix. It may still be there. []
  4. http://www.etonline.com/news/165864_lady_gaga_pens_essay_on_sexual_assault_with_new_york_governor_andrew_cuomo/ []
  5. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/how-many-of-the-uss-40000_b_5845052.html []
  6. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_R._Vitullo []
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rape_kit []
  8. http://www.waynecounty.com/prosecutor/detroitrapekitproject.htm []
  9. http://www.joyfulheartfoundation.org/about-us/vision-and-mission []
  10. http://www.endthebacklog.org/ – sthash.TcUAmHV0.dpuf []
  11. http://investigations.blog.ajc.com/2015/09/11/new-york-city-picks-up-tab-for-georgia-to-test-dna-in-rape-case-backlog/ []
  12. http://lawstreetmedia.com/issues/law-and-politics/rape-kits-new-funding-will-bring-victims-justice/ []
  13. http://manhattanda.org/sites/default/files/Manhattan DA Grant Recipients.pdf []
  14. https://www.bja.gov/funding/SAKI-Funding-Summary.pdf []
  15. http://www.endthebacklog.org/detroit []
  16. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/11/nyregion/city-prosecutor-using-millions-seized-from-banks-for-rape-kit-testing.html?_r=1 []
  17. http://investigations.blog.ajc.com/2015/09/11/new-york-city-picks-up-tab-for-georgia-to-test-dna-in-rape-case-backlog/ []
  18. http://investigations.blog.ajc.com/2015/09/11/new-york-city-picks-up-tab-for-georgia-to-test-dna-in-rape-case-backlog/ []
  19. http://investigations.blog.ajc.com/2015/10/14/how-grady-memorial-hospital-proposes-to-fix-its-rape-kit-problem/ []
  20. http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/22/us/a-third-of-college-women-experience-unwanted-sexual-contact-study-finds.html?_r=0 []

3 Comments

  1. Brooks Gibson

    November 8, 2015

    Post a Reply

    This piece impressed me a great deal. I learned things that actually surprised me, and it covered the subject very thoroughly. There is a crispness to your writing that I love. It keeps my interest. It does not mince words. Every one is well-chosen. My own writing, by comparison, is so verbose and florid that even I would go to sleep reading it in the evening.

    I have been present on several occasions when I was working as a Child Protective Services social worker and have observed a rape kit being utilized with male victims of sexual abuse. This was in Nashville, TN. I will spare you and your readers the details of how evidence is collected, but the process was sufficiently traumatic to watch that it left a lasting impression. I still wince just thinking of it. I cannot imagine the painful memories that victims carry around with them for the rest of their lives.

    These kits are important, to put it mildly. Rape and violence are serious problems for our society, which still clings to the primitive notion that people are to be controlled, not made to be free. The root causes of rape, mostly by men, deserve more study, but I believe that as we shed more light on that, we will also be illuminating some attitudes about control and violence in general, attitudes that permeate us as a so-called civilization. The warehousing of rape kits should basically show how very little we really want to see illuminated.

    I particularly appreciated this article. It nearly drove me to the brink of some florid prose of my own. Thank you for another chilling visit to the iceberg’s tip.

    • hannahpowers

      November 8, 2015

      Post a Reply

      I’m not sure everyone will agree with you that I am crisp but thanks. You write beautifully. We now live in a fast sound bite world but I love writing for nothing more than the love of language. That is what you give us and I treasure it.
      You were on the front lines working in Child Protective Services and probably saw a lot. How awful for those boys. I don’t want to let my mind wander to it. I hadn’t thought about the pain and embarrassment of having a rape kit done. And then to have it warehoused for years and forgotten. It makes the problem even worse. I guess I got to thinking in numbers. There were so many numbers in this post.
      Getting the kits processed is only the first step. A lot more money, time and effort will need to be poured into this. It may not happen. I hope it does. “Another chilling visit to the iceberg’s tip.” That was perfect.

  2. Cathy

    November 17, 2015

    Post a Reply

    thank you for your wonderful work! lots of stuff I didn’t know here — I’m glad for one thing that something worthwhile is being done with bad bank money.

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