Insider Look: Conference on Crimes Against Women

Earlier this month, Managing Director Sarah Haacke Byrd and Senior Policy & Advocacy Advisor, Ilse Knecht traveled to Dallas to attend the 10th Annual Conference on Crimes Against Women. The Conference is geared toward law enforcement officials, government and non-profit officials, advocates, and any other individuals who work directly with crime. This year, more than 1,600 people were in attendance.

Joyful Heart had the distinct honor of having Sarah as one of the keynote speakers at the Opening Plenary session, the only time that all conference participants were in the same room. Sarah spoke about Joyful Heart’s policy and advocacy work to end the rape kit backlog and reinforced the importance of testing all kits booked into evidence. Addressing the audience, Sarah stated, “You know even better than we do that when tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown assailant or confirm the presence of a known suspect, affirm a survivor’s account of the attack and discredit the attacker and it can connect the suspect to other crime scenes and exonerate the innocent.” Sarah informed the participants about the new funding opportunities emerging (Bureau of Justice Assistance and New York District Attorney grant programs), and the importance of victim notification when re-engaging survivors who were affected by the rape kit backlog. She concluded by calling for change, and encouraged each person in the audience to consider their power to impact survivors and help them on their journey towards healing.

Ilse also had the opportunity to moderate a panel, Lessons Learned: Cities Tackle the Rape Kit Backlog, which featured Cuyahoga County Prosecuting Attorney Tim McGinty, Memphis Police Department Sex Crimes DNA Supervisor Lt. Cody Wilkerson, and Founder and Spokesperson for Natasha’s Justice Project, Natasha Alexenko.  Each of these four dynamic individuals brought a unique perspective to the panel and shared a wealth of knowledge about why its important to get untested kits into labs for processing. 

The panel started with Natasha who shared her experience as a sexual assault survivor whose rape kit was tested as part of the New York City backlog elimination project. Her story highlighted what rape victims go through during the exam process, the impact of sexual assault, and how important it is for survivors to get answers and a chance for justice. 

Prosecutor McGinty and Lt. Wilkerson talked about their cities’ experiences (Cleveland and Memphis respectively) with addressing large numbers of untested sexual assault kits.  They both expressed the importance of establishing a multi-disciplinary coordinated team approach to investigation and prosecution of any DNA hits that result from testing.  Both emphasized that the results of their SAK testing proves that many rapists are serial offenders. To underscore this point, Lt. Wilkerson read the rap sheets of a few of the offenders they found in Memphis through SAK testing.  When speaking about the serial offenders in Cleveland, Prosecutor McGinty called some of their serial offenders, “One man crime waves.” 

All the participants spoke about the importance of working with victims in a way that mitigates the hard that can be done by notifying a victim 10, 20 or more years later of a DNA cold hit. Lt. Wilkerson and Ilse spoke about ensuring a victim advocate is available for notification, that victims are given options and choices about hearing details of the news and meetings, and giving victims time to digest the information and to gather their support system around them if they choose before conducting an interview.  

The panel also covered why testing all sexual assault kits is the best approach, new funding opportunities through the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the New York District Attorney's Office, and transforming the response to sexual assault cases moving forward. 

- By Vivian Long, April 24th, 2015

ENDTHEBACKLOG is a program 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.

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