During the initial phases of our victim notification research, we talked to members of law enforcement, advocates, and survivors across the country and they affirmed our understanding that few jurisdictions had official policies for victim notification. Those who were doing notification told us that they would like to have access to information about best practices.
Each jurisdiction we talked with had a slightly different approach with certain themes emerging. In many jurisdictions a multi-disciplinary team works together to make decisions about whether and how to notify a particular survivor on a case-by-case basis. Those teams usually include a law enforcement officer or a prosecutor and often a victim advocate. Several jurisdictions approach notification in various steps such as calling first and then asking for an in-person meeting. Jurisdictions differed on when, if at all, notification would occur during the process of clearing a backlog.
In 2015, Dr. Rebecca Campbell released her report, funded by the Department of Justice, on the Wayne County, Michigan Sexual Assault Kit Action Research Project to test more than 11,000 untested rape kits and study the results. Part of the project’s goal was to develop a victim notification plan that could be replicated elsewhere to contact survivors in cases where a perpetrator is identified through DNA testing.
Detroit decided to train a retired investigator to conduct notifications alone and in person, for several reasons, one being the concern for advocates’ safety. The first outreach was in person but many had to be done over the phone because of the survivor’s relocation or due to difficulty catching the survivor at home. Houston also received an Action Research Grant and examined best ways to approach victim notification. This community decided to make the first outreach by phone. The police department created a new victim advocate position to serve as the main point of contact for survivors. Other communities have also started to work on their notification plans as awareness of the need to test every rape kit grows.
In a growing number of states, survivors have a legally established right to be notified about the status of their kits. While the exact language varies from state to state, generally these states give survivors a right, upon request, to information about the status of any testing of his or her rape kit unless the disclosure will interfere with the investigation of the assault. This information includes knowledge about the submission of the kit to a crime lab, and the comparison of evidence with profiles in a DNA database and results of that comparison. For instance, in Oregon, survivors may request and receive information about the location, testing date, and results of their kits. All law enforcement agencies and the state lab must designate a contact person to handle survivor inquiries within 30 days of receipt. In Utah, law enforcement agencies must also notify victims when they do not intend to analyze the DNA evidence collected in their kits. In Washington, which enacted a law establishing a statewide rape kit tracking system in 2016, the system must have a portal through which survivors can anonymously access information about the status of their kits. While, unfortunately, a survivor has no recourse should law enforcement fail to comply with the legislation, these types of enumerated rights empower survivors with greater access to information about their rape kits.