[Opinion] – Rape victims still waiting for answers

Earlier this month, Gov. Sarah Palin and the police leadership in her small town of Wasilla, Alaska faced fierce criticism after questions arose on their practice of charging rape victims for their own forensic examinations. These examinations, which cost between $500 and $1,200, are used to gather evidence such as bodily fluids, hairs and fingernail scrapings from a sexual attack for later DNA analysis. Though a legislative bill passed in 2000 stopped the practice âÄî it was occurring in several other small cities in Alaska as well âÄî the incident itself stirs questions concerning larger national problem âÄî the marginalization of rape victims by law enforcement and policy makers. In the United States, one in six women and one in 33 men will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Though 60 percent of all sexual assaults go unreported, many people do choose to document their attack to the police as well as consent to forensic evidence collection examinations âÄî commonly known as rape kits. This process of collecting sexual assault evidence is often lengthy, uncomfortable and invasive, yet hundreds of thousands of people submit their body as evidence in hopes of catching their assailant and obtaining some sort of justice. But despite the time and emotion it takes a victim to complete the examination, many of these rape kits are never even examined or analyzed. There are currently between 150,000 and 600,000 kits sitting in storage waiting to be processed in the United States. The tangible explanation of why these kits have never been opened is the same as why Wasilla, Alaska made rape victims pay for their own kits âÄî thereâÄôs just not enough people or money to process them all. But it seems as though thereâÄôs another problem undermining their analysis too âÄî that rape is considering a less serious violent crime than others. For people like Debbie Smith, a Virginia woman who was kidnapped and raped outside her own home, this lack of importance made the difference between living in constant fear and reclaiming her life. On the afternoon March 3, 1989, a masked attacker entered SmithâÄôs home through an unlocked door and blindfolded, kidnapped and raped her in the woods behind her house. The rapist told Smith never to report the attack or he would return to kill her. Her husband, a police officer, was asleep upstairs when she returned, and convinced Smith to get a forensic examination, despite her cries to just take a shower and âÄúwash away the painâÄù. Smith said she was âÄúplucked and scraped and swabbedâÄù during the examination in order to collect and preserve pertinent materials for DNA analysis. But because the rapist was a complete stranger to Smith âÄî making it less likely the police would ever catch him âÄî her rape kit was set aside for later analysis and never fully examined. It was not until six and a half years after her assault that Smith was told a DNA match was made using a prison database program. Her attacker, who was already serving time, was identified but unfortunately had already raped two additional women before being captured. Excessive delays are not the only flaws of the DNA collection and analysis process âÄî poor training for professionals, misunderstandings on how to collect evidence properly and failing to update a victim on the processing of their kits also adds to the marginalization of rape victims. ThatâÄôs why Smith is spearheading legislation requiring backlogged rape kits to finally be processed, even after many years have passed. The bipartisan Debbie Smith Act was introduced into Congress in 2003 and was signed into law in 2004 under the umbrella bill, the Justice for All Act. The Debbie Smith Act allocates $1 billion for a five-year initiative focused on processing the backlogged rape kits while providing additional training for law enforcement and first responders on sexual assault evidence collection. By 2007, 46 states received grants totaling $43 million to process these backlogged kits, yet over half the states reported they were not spending all the money allotted to them. Experts say that under-spending of available grants signals a problem in the priority of solving rape cases. âÄúThe dynamics that contributed to the backlog [of rape kits], chiefly a failure to treat rape as seriously as other violent crimes, have been recreated in the way states spend the grants,âÄù writes Sarah Tofte of Human Rights Watch in the Washington Post last July. Fortunately, The Debbie Smith Act was reauthorized in July 2008. Advocates are now pushing for further measures to ensure that all grant money is used for processing the backlogged rape kits. Now, on its second implementation, The Debbie Smith Act gives states the ability to redeem their efforts on solving rape cases. But itâÄôs equally critical that citizens keep their leadership accountable for processing the hundreds of thousands of backlogged cases in order to prevent future assaults from occurring. We have the money and the resources; there are no more excuses for marginalizing rape victims. Kathryn Nelson welcomes comments at [email protected]