It’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Organizations and advocates—who work every day to support survivors and raise awareness about sexual violence—are dedicating even more time this month to public education efforts, advocacy campaigns, and events to engage and energize communities to commit to ending this violence forever.
Myths about sexual assault are all too common in our society, perpetuating shame, stigma, and victim blaming. They also influence broader community attitudes and the responses survivors receive from friends, family members, and criminal justice professionals. The rape kit backlog is an example of the pervasive influence of rape myths and the negative impact these attitudes have on efforts to improve access to healing and justice for survivors—including efforts to enact rape kit reforms that are necessary to end the backlog.
This Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we are challenging the myths that stand as obstacles to meaningful rape kit reform.
MYTH: Only large cities have a backlog of untested rape kits.
FACT: The rape kit backlog is pervasive and affects survivors throughout the country.
While larger cities such as New York and Los Angeles have reported astronomical numbers (17,000 in New York in 2003 and 12,669 in Los Angeles in 2009), the backlog exists in all 50 states. An Idaho audit of untested rape kits in 2015 found 1,119 untested kits throughout the state. That same year, a similar audit in Kentucky uncovered 3,090 untested rape kits. And just last month, the Iowa Attorney General released the results of their audit, reporting at least 4,265 untested kits in storage across the state.
MYTH: If you already have a known suspect, there is no reason to test a rape kit.
FACT: Every rape kit connected to a reported crime, including those in which the survivor knew the perpetrator, must be tested.
DNA evidence is an invaluable investigative tool to solve crimes. So-called “acquaintance” or “known” offenders may be serial rapists, and they may have also committed crimes against people they don’t know. The results of DNA testing, when entered into the national DNA database called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), can help link cases by identifying the same DNA profile obtained from two—or even more—kits. In these instances, testing kits from cases where the suspect is known can help identify serial offenders and bring justice to survivors. In 2009, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office discovered 11,341 untested rape kits in a Detroit Police Department storage facility. As of January 2017, Detroit has tested approximately 10,000 kits, resulting in 2,616 DNA matches and the identification of 784 potential serial rapists. DNA from test kits were linked to crimes committed in 40 states and Washington, D.C.
MYTH: The “test all kits” approach means that all kits should be tested, regardless of whether a survivor wants to report the crime or not.
Fact: Each survivor chooses their own path to healing.
Joyful Heart calls for the mandatory submission and testing of every rape kit connected to a reported sexual assault. Special consideration must be given to unreported or anonymous kits; sexual assault survivors must be able to choose their own path to healing and justice, and their choices must be respected. Honoring a survivor’s chosen level of engagement with the criminal justice system is critical to well-being. By testing every rape kit booked into evidence and associated with a reported crime, communities can promote justice and improve public safety, while supporting survivors.
MYTH: Survivors do not want to be notified about the status of their rape kits, especially if their kits have remained untested for years.
FACT: Research shows that many survivors want information about their kits, even if there is a delay in testing.
In 2015, the Detroit Sexual Assault Kit Action Research Project found that out of the Detroit survivors who had been contacted about their backlogged rape kits, 55 percent had a neutral reaction to the notification of the status of their kit, meaning they were open to hearing about the case but were reserved, and 29 percent had a positive reaction, including feeling happy and relieved. In our three-year research project, Navigating Notification, we found that survivors must be in charge of the way notification unfolds. This means giving survivors choices about whether, when, and how to receive information about their rape kits and cases. Our research found that, for survivors who want this information, not having access to it can severely hamper their recovery. We must honor survivors’ wishes and provide them with the information that they choose to receive.
Help us eliminate myths about the backlog of untested rape kits. Share these facts.
- By Lily Rocha, Joyful Heart Foundation Policy and Advocacy Manager, April 18, 2017
END THE BACKLOG is an initiative of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.