Across the country, thousands of survivors whose rape kits have been languishing in police and crime lab storage facilities are being contacted because their kits were tested and the DNA evidence has been linked to a known offender. For many survivors, notification may bring to the surface strong feelings and emotions. Despite the passage of time, a survivor might feel as though his or her assault just occurred. This can cause traumatic levels of distress including flashbacks, nightmares, panic attacks and other difficult and confusing experiences. Survivors may feel shock, confusion, anger, fear, anxiety, relief, and happiness. Many report feeling burdened by the decisions put before them, while others feel grateful that the case is moving forward to resolution.
Here are some common questions that survivors in these circumstances might ask.
What will happen next?
The investigator assigned to the case will request a meeting to talk about next steps and at what level the survivor would like to participate. This meeting should take place at a location that is convenient and comfortable for the survivor. If the survivor decides to move forward, the case will be reviewed by the investigator and any additional evidence will be gathered. If there is enough evidence, the case will be referred to the prosecutor who will also request a meeting. If the prosecutor decides to move forward with the case, there will be additional meetings and court dates over the next year and potentially longer.
Will there be a trial?
Many factors go into the decision to prosecute an offender and even cases that are prosecuted do not always end up in a trial. For example, there won’t be a trial if the identified offender is deceased or in the case of a plea bargain. Survivors have the right to voice an opinion about a plea bargain and should be kept informed about the progress of their case by the prosecutor's staff.
What if you do not want to participate?
The choice to participate lies with each survivor. A survivor has the right to decline to speak with investigators. After notification, a survivor can take time to process this decision and to seek support from loved ones and local sexual assault victim advocates who can help make an informed choice. If a survivor decides not to be part of the case, typically, the request will be honored.
What rights do survivors have?
Survivors have the right to be treated with fairness, dignity, and respect; to privacy and confidentiality; to be informed; to be heard and to participate in the criminal justice process; to timely disposition of the case; to notice about the status of the case; and to apply for compensation. Some states have a specific provision that grants sexual assault victims the right to be informed about the status of their kit’s testing and whether there has been a DNA match.
Every state has a crime victim compensation fund designed to reimburse crime victims for some of the costs resulting from criminal victimization. Survivors in cases with new action may need to take time off of work for police interviews or to attend court events. They may wish to seek counseling. Reimbursement may be available for lost wages, counseling costs and some other out-of-pocket expenses. Information is available from law enforcement, the prosecutor’s office and victim advocates or survivors can visit the state’s crime victim compensation program for specifics.
Where can survivors get help and support?
There are local and national sources of support for survivors. The local or regional rape crisis center may have advocates that can accompany survivors to the law enforcement department or prosecutor’s office, help navigate issues with schools, employers or other organizations, and make connections with other community resources, and more. The police department and prosecutor’s office may have a victim witness coordinator who can provide information about the process and help with compensation paperwork and connections to other sources of support.