Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Sexual Assault - The Lost Cause?

I don't often find myself commenting at other blogs. For the most part, that is because I find I am at a loss for time. However, since I am on vacation this week, I have had the chance to peruse other blogs. As a result, I have been commenting on a post concerning the fact that "rape" kits are not being tested (and I put that in quotes because I have been taught to refer to them as sexual assault kits since, as an analyst, I am paid to be unbiased).

What I have found at this site is an extreme horror at the fact that there are countless sexual assault kits not being tested in the forensic science system. The reasoning often pointed to is that there is a lack of funding. I have found that this reasoning has been lambasted as basically a cop out.

I am curious as to additional thoughts on this. At the above cited post I find that I have been a relatively empty voice as far as supporting the notion of more funding. It gets lost in the outrage. I truly do understand the outrage. However, as I pointed out in one of my comments, I am one of four analysts for well over thirty counties. A simple DNA case takes two weeks to process. It simply isn't feasible to keep up with them all without more funding. The only reason we finally have our heads above the water is thanks to Department of Justice funding for outsourcing of the backlog.

So, is it apathy or a lack of funding?


A recent new article concerning a man freed after post-conviction DNA testing appears at Yahoo News. This is the type of story that I don't want to get lost in the shuffle. The Innocence Project does amazing work. If it wasn't considered a conflict of interest for me, I would be a volunteer. While there is much to be done to keep on top of the insane amount of evidence submitted to a crime lab, it is heartening to know that DNA is doing its level best to convict or exonerate, even if it takes a while to right a wrong.


Habladora said...

Doesn't the lack of funding point to an apathy worthy of our rage? (Full disclosure - I'm guest blogging at Feministe for two weeks, starting next week).

Mächtige Maus said...

Sure it does. And that is an alarm that needs to be sounded more vehemently.

It isn't an issue of sexual assault evidence not being worthy of being tested when compared to homicide evidence. It is an issue of the ability of a limited number of people being able to keep ahead of any kind of evidence. I don't want the sexual assault evidence to be tagged as the only thing causing a DNA backlog because then it sounds as if the system does not care about those cases and that simply is not the case.

Anonymous said...

I also wonder if it's in part due to the fact if this is funded it admits there's a large problem out there.

Sally said...

I was trying to follow that thread too, but it became (as often happens) too much about personal reactions and not as much about insight and knowledge on the topic.

To your question, though, I agree with Habladora that the lack of funding is indicative of a greater apathy. You have to push for them to care in order to really increase the funding. Rage won't get that done though. It will drive you, but as activists, we need to be more responsible and communicate our analysis, suggest solutions, etc.

If all of that is dripping with rage, nobody will ever take it seriously. ("There go those women acting hysterical again; I wonder what's wrong with them this time.")

Habladora said...

The problem exists, whether or not rape denialsts (found here) choose to acknowledge it. I would say that the fact that it is under-funded points to a larger problem out there.

Cara is expressing a legitimate concern. Hundreds of thousands of rape kits aren't getting tested. As she explains, victims agree to the uncomfortable (and sometimes rather traumatizing) evidence collecting process with the understanding that doing so will help: "When a victim officially files a criminal report with the police, they are doing it under an implicit contract that the police will do something about it. When submitting to a rape kit collection, women are working under the assumption that their kit will go somewhere and will work towards prosecuting their rapist. It’s unrealistic to expect that undergoing rape kit collection will necessarily result in a conviction — but it’s entirely valid to expect that police will do the best they can with the evidence they have."

I still think victims should be encouraged to report. Again, though, Cara says it best: "In a general sense, I would agree that less reporting is a bad thing — but I would argue that those who have been raped have already been violated enough. And they deserve to be told the truth and to make an informed decision about the stressful and emotionally difficult process of evidence collection."

There is a worry though, that the sort of cases that make the news shows get more effort and attention, while the others are ignored. I don't think that Cara is placing any blame on people like Maus, whose job it is to test the kit for DNA evidence (although if those people were ignoring certain cases, she would). Yet, the lack of funding for enough DNA analysis to keep up with incoming cases does suggest a system-wide problem.

Mächtige Maus said...

I would like to throw out a few points that don't necessarily get acknowledged with the hundred of thousands of rape kits not getting testing statement.

(1) A sexual assault kit that was collected after a delay often will not be submitted for testing. The likelihood of a kit being positive drops drastically after only 24 hours.

(2) The untested kit statistic does not take into account the fact that following the collection of the evidence some victims choose not to prosecute.

I do think it is important to keep such things in mind. It is easy to focus on the statistic of untested kits, but to do so without bearing in mind that a certain percentage of kits collected are never destined to be tested even if there were enough resources is a bit misleading.

Habladora said...

What happens to the kits of those who choose not to prosecute?

I think an honest description of what happens, which you might be able to provide, is exactly what Cara wants. She is saying that victims have a right to know what steps they can expect will be taken. So, for a woman can and does report within 24 hours - what happens next?

On a side note, I REALLY don't understand how calling it a 'sexual assault' kit is any more unbiased than calling it a 'rape kit.' It isn't like sexual assault isn't a crime. The resistance to the term 'sexual assault kit,' though, is based on some well-founded outrage at judges banning the word (here) in their courtrooms.

Mächtige Maus said...

First, let me say that I disagree with the notion that a victim testifying in court should not be allowed to use the term rape. However, as an analyst, I do understand the restriction placed on me.

Rape generates a violent reaction in a juror. My job is not to illicit that response, but to simply relay scientific evidence to the jury. Since I was not present at the time of the assault, the only thing I can do is say that my results indicate that the subject was or was not present on the evidence.

The victim should be allowed to testify in a manner that hits the jury at an emotional level. However, in order for me to be a successful expert witness (for the prosecution *or* defense) I must turn the focus onto the scientific evidence without emotion.

Mächtige Maus said...

Well, the kits that are never destined to be tested are maintained by the police/sheriff. They still become part of the statistic for untested kits.

I do think the statistics for untested kits will start to drop because of late the Department of Justice has been providing funding to forensic labs for backlog reduction and I know for a fact it has been working.

I also want to point out that the statistic generally does not apply to unknown subject cases. Those cases do not get stuck on the shelf somewhere. It doesn't make it any better that other kits do sit and wait, but I don't want there to be a misconception that violent serial rapists are being allowed to run rampant because kits sit untouched.

So, what happens now that the backlog is indeed starting to shrink is that, assuming the agency brings the evidence in a timely fashion is this: it gets assigned to an analyst, the analyst pulls the case (usually within 4-6 weeks of receipt...remember, cases are worked first come first serve...and we get a lot of cases), the analyst works the serology, if there are no standards submitted and/or no attorney request for DNA analysis an initial report goes out until further analysis is requested, if the case goes forward for DNA analysis it takes another two weeks minimum anywhere up to two months on occasion if additional evidence is submitted.