Every two minutes in the United States, someone is sexually assaulted, according to EndTheBacklog.org, a program created to shed light on — and eliminate — the backlog of untested rape kits.
End the Backlog is an initiative of the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national non-profit organization “with the mission to heal, educate, and empower survivors of sexual assault.” The organization was established by actress and activist Mariska Hargitay, who plays Lieutenant Olivia Benson on the NBC TV drama “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”
The show prominently addressed the rape kit backlog in a special episode titled “Behave,” which originally aired Sept. 29, 2010, and concluded with a call to action video featuring Hargitay and other cast members urging viewers to become advocates for the cause.
While Hargitay oversees the investigations of sexual assault cases in New York City on TV, she fights for victims’ rights across the country in real life, too.
“To me, the rape kit backlog is one of the clearest and the most shocking demonstrations of how we regard these crimes in our society,” Hargitay says on EndTheBacklog.com. “Testing rape kits sends a fundamental and crucial message to victims of sexual violence: You matter. What happened to you matters. Your case matters.”
Following the physical injuries of an attack, many sexual assault survivors go on to suffer emotional traumas, which may include depression, suicidal thoughts, PTSD, drug use, and relationship problems with family, friends, and co-workers.
In 2017, Hargitay released her first documentary, “I Am Evidence,” which takes a closer look at why more than 175,000 rape kits throughout the U.S. remain untested and provides firsthand accounts from four sexual assault survivors who have had to navigate their way through a broken criminal justice system.
As explained on EndTheBacklog.org, the contents of a rape kit vary from state to state, but most kits include the following items:
“We believe each kit represents a survivor who underwent the four-to-six-hour rape kit collection process and reported the rape to the police,” EndTheBacklog.org states on its “Why Testing Every Kit Matters” page. “Each kit represents a survivor who deserves to have that kit tested, and who deserves justice.”
After the city of Detroit’s police crime lab was shut down in 2008 following an audit that discovered significant errors in evidence evaluation, the local prosecutor’s office found 11,304 untested rape kits inside a police storage facility — one of the largest known backlogs in the nation at the time.
Since then, Detroit has been committed to eliminating its backlog, having tested nearly 10,000 rape kits as of April 2017, which resulted in more than 2,600 DNA matches and the identification of nearly 800 potential serial rapists.
While some reform is happening in some states, the numbers of untested rape kits, which are only now being tested, remain staggering — including 13,435 kits in Florida, 13,931 kits in Ohio, and a whopping 19,051 kits in Texas, with more than 115,000 kits in 34 other states.
“The backlog of untested rape kits represents the failure of the criminal justice system to take sexual assault seriously, prioritize the testing of rape kits, protect survivors, and hold offenders accountable,” according to EndTheBacklog.org.
Two main factors contribute to the majority of backlog issues. First, while rape kits are collected and booked into evidence, many detectives and prosecutors don’t request a DNA analysis, so the kits end up sitting in evidence storage facilities indefinitely. Second, when rape kits are submitted for DNA testing, they often aren’t completed in a timely manner because of funding and staffing issues in the crime labs.
A lack of resources has caused a nationwide shortage of sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs), who are specially trained in properly collecting and preserving forensic evidence.
According to a March 2016 report on sexual assault from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, “Studies have shown that exams performed by trained sexual assault forensic examiners may result in shortened exam time, better quality health care delivered to victims, higher quality forensic evidence collection, as well as better collaboration with the legal system and higher prosecution rates.”
However, only about 10 percent of hospitals in the U.S. have a forensic nurse examiner on staff, and even fewer have one available around the clock, according to Mary Kay Clunies-Ross, vice president of membership and communications for the Washington State Hospital Association, in the article, “Lack of sexual assault nurses puts survivors at risk,” in Modern Healthcare.
Federal efforts have been made to address the national shortage of certified nurses, according to the June 20, 2017 article, “Where Are the Rape-Kit Nurses?” in the New York Times. For instance, last year, Washington Sen. Patty Murray introduced the Survivor’s Access to Supportive Care Act that would expand the forensic training nurses receive. “But the legislation,” the Times reports, “like many bills that primarily benefit women, stalled.”
“In the course of drafting the Violence Against Women Act, I became aware of the critical work sexual assault forensic nurses do in our country’s hospitals,” former Vice President Joe Biden writes in the foreword of “Forensic Nursing: A Handbook for Practice.”
“I learned that these nurses are particularly sensitive to the trauma of sexual assault and try to ensure that the patient is not re-victimized after reporting the crime. Forensic nurses play an integral role in bridging the gap between law and medicine. They should be in each and every emergency room.”
Duquesne University’s online forensic nursing program can teach students how to apply the principles of law and forensic science to the practice of nursing. The forensic nursing certificate curriculum includes courses in forensic science and the legal system, advanced forensic nursing theory and practice, and criminal law and the courts. Graduates may pursue a career as a sexual assault nurse, among other specialties.