Children are being “ targeted and sold for sex in America every day". John Ryan, National Center for Missing & Expl...
giovedì 15 febbraio 2018
"I AM EVIDENCE" The Massive Backlog Of Untested Rape Kits
In a 2010 episode of "Law & Order: Special
Victims Unit," New York Police Department Detective Olivia Benson, played
by Mariska Hargitay, travels to Detroit to collect evidence on a serial rapist
who has assaulted women across the country. Arriving at a police evidence
storage facility, she stops dead in her tracks. "You've got to be kidding
me," she mutters as she surveys racks piled to the ceiling with thousands
of untested sexual-assault kits.
While the show's story line is fictional, it's based
on fact. In 2009, the Wayne County, Mich., prosecutor's office discovered more
than 11,000 untested rape kits sitting in storage.
As detailed in the
Hargitay-produced documentaryI Am Evidence — screened as
part of the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival's third annual Winter Screening Series — rape-kit
backlogs similar in scope to Detroit's were discovered in major cities around
the country, including Cleveland; Memphis, Tenn.; and Los Angeles.
"At the end of the day, [rape-kit testing] is a
very important public safety issue to save lives," says I Am
Evidence codirector Trish Adlesic in a phone interview from New York.
"These kinds of crimes escalate, and we want to keep people safe. We have
the science so readily available."
That science isn't always being used to track and test
kits, though — even in Vermont, where the backlog of untested kits is smaller
but still a matter of recent legislative concern.
A rape kit is a package of biological evidence
gathered from a victim following an allegation of sexual assault. The
examination takes four to six hours and is highly invasive. A victim doesn't
have to report a crime to have a rape kit collected, but the evidence gathered
during the exam can be used to form a DNA profile for prosecution in a criminal
The documentary features interviews with multiple
victims of sexual assault, including Los Angeles resident Helena Lazaro, whose
story formed the basis for that groundbreaking "SVU" episode about
the rape-kit backlog. A powerful segment crosscuts between testimonials by
Lazaro and a woman from Ohio, both of whom were raped by the same long-distance
trucker. Had Lazaro's rape kit not been kept in untested limbo for more than 13
years, the subsequent assault might have been prevented.
Adlesic, who served as a location manager on
"SVU" from 1999 to 2014, notes that the two women linked by shared
trauma met for the first time at the documentary's Tribeca Film Festival
"One of the things around the film that's been so
profound is just that, by giving people an opportunity to be heard and
supported, it's almost transformative," Adlesic says.
In 2015, the U.S. Department of Justice estimated that
there were roughly 400,000 untested rape kits nationwide. End the Backlog, an
initiative of the Hargitay-founded Joyful Heart Foundation, provides detailed
information on a statewide basis. Vermont is one of 13 states whose backlog is
listed as "unknown."
A recent audit uncovered the extent of the problem in
the Green Mountain State. The Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Study Committee,
which the Vermont legislature created as part of Act 68 last year, found that
58 kits had been identified as unaccounted for between 2012 and 2017.
"Many of these kits are likely stored in evidence lockers at various law
enforcement agencies or may have been discarded at various points in the
transport chain," the panel concluded in a report issued November 15.
Vermont Forensic Laboratory director Trisha Conti, who
served on the kit-study committee, tells Seven Days that the
final number of missing kits was actually 63. She says the forensic lab has
been working with the Vermont Network Against Domestic and
Sexual Violence to contact hospitals and law
enforcement agencies and track down the kits.
Thus far, Conti notes, one kit has been identified as
having been destroyed; eight kits were opened at a hospital but never used;
four kits had already been tested but weren't properly accounted for; eight
kits were found and have been submitted for testing in Vermont; and 10
additional kits were discovered that fell under the law enforcement
jurisdiction of other states. (The last scenario tends to arise near the state
border where the alleged assault and the hospital are in different jurisdictions.)
That leaves 32 kits whose whereabouts remain unknown.
A final report from the kit-study committee, submitted
to the legislature on December 29, recommended that Vermont adopt a web-based
kit-tracking system to consolidate the reporting methods of hospitals, law
enforcement agencies and the forensic lab. Specifically, the committee advised
that the state implement a solution similar to the system adopted by
Connecticut in 2017, which uses UPS Trackpad software that functions much like
the parcel service's home-delivery package tracker. The report notes that the
monthly cost of the system is approximately $600.
"I think, regardless of whether or not the
legislature gives us funding for it as a separate line item, we're going to try
to come up with the funds to move forward with it anyway, just because I think
it would be so much more efficient than what we have now," Conti says.
"The untested rape-kit issue is massive,"
Komesar says, "and I think this film brings a rather searing spotlight on
just how large the problem is and how much effort, collectively, is going to
have to be expended to make a difference."
The original print version of this article was
headlined "Breaking the Backlog"
The Joyful Heart Foundation, which created the PSA,
estimates that hundreds of thousands of rape kits are sitting untested in law
enforcement facilities around the country due to the lack of resources and
funding. “Shelved” lays out in 60 seconds the far-reaching impacts of this
“Behind every kit is a person — a sexual assault survivor —
waiting for justice,” the nonprofit foundation said in a press release.
A rape kit is used to collect physical evidence left on the
victim’s body. When that evidence is tested for DNA, it can be used to
prosecute the attacker and, in some cases, to identify serial predators. But an
untested rape kit does nobody any good.
“At its core, the rape kit backlog is about survivors,”
Joyful Heart’s managing director, Sarah Haacke Byrd, said in the press release.
“When a person is sexually assaulted and chooses to undergo the invasive
four-to-six hour evidence collection examination at the hospital, they expect
the kit will be tested and the evidence used to prosecute the attacker. The
public expects the same.”
“Rape kit testing sends a message to survivors that they ―
and their cases ― matter,” says the End the Backlog website. “It sends a
message to perpetrators that they will be held accountable for their crimes. It
also demonstrates a commitment to survivors to do everything possible to bring
healing and justice.”