From news sources national to local to campus-based, the backlog has been receiving a lot of coverage lately. A couple weeks ago, a Georgia high school student named Brittany emailed Joyful Heart to ask for an interview with Sarah Tofte, JHF’s Director of Advocacy & Strategic Partnerships, for an article she was writing for her school newspaper, The Pitchfork.

Whether they are just embarking on their journalistic pursuits or they are award-winning veterans in the field, journalists are crucial to our efforts to end the backlog. Because only one state (Illinois) requires jurisdictions to track their rape kits at the moment, a lot of investigative work must, and has, been done by the media to uncover the nature of backlogs. One of the most important steps in creating a movement–a revolution, even–is raising awareness. Writing articles is a great way to do this, and there are so many resources that can help.

Brittany was kind enough to send along her completed article published in The Pitchfork’s February 18 issue for us to post here on our blog. We thought we’d share it with you.

Can you describe what happened? Did you get a good look? Could you give us a description? These are the hounding questions asked when one is sexually assaulted. There’s no time to think or process–just questions. And on top of the questions, there’s the evidence collection, a long process in which evidence is collected directly from the crime scene. But in cases of sexual assault, the victim is the crime scene. We see things like this every day on television, but the part most of us don’t realize is that this stuff really happens.

Every year, tens of thousands of people are sexually assaulted or raped. In 2009, there were 88,097 reported rapes in the US, nearly double the number in South Africa, where the second highest number of rapes occur annually. Some frightening statistics: one in six women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime; every two minutes, someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted; only an estimated 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in prison; rape has a 24% arrest rate, on average. Fortunately, victims are able to undergo an sexual assault evidence (SAE) examination in order to identify and prosecute their attacker, that is, if their evidence is tested.

During an SAE examination, commonly referred to as a “rape kit exam” the victim is in a room with the examiner for approximately four to six hours. During this time, to collect possible DNA evidence, the examiner swabs the victim and scrapes under the fingernails, pulls hairs and fibers, collects the victim’s clothes, collects blood and urine samples, and takes pictures of any visible wounds. Often times this process is emotionally difficult for the victim to endure, but he/she gets through it because he/she knows it could possibly help law enforcement make a conviction. The only problem is that a large proportion of these rape kits are never tested.

Currently in the U.S., there are an estimated 180,000 to 400,000 untested rape kits sitting on the shelves of police evidence labs across the country, forgotten. In most states, there is a statute of limitations for rape, meaning there’s only a certain time frame in which someone can be brought to trial for a specific crime. If a rape kit is not processed in that allotted time frame, the evidence is useless. The rape kit backlog, as it is commonly known, is an epidemic in our country and needs to end.

The Joyful Heart Foundation (JHF), a non-profit organization whose purpose is to shed light on issues like sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence, is working with various sources to try to end the backlog in the U.S. Mariska Hargitay of NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU), founder of JHF, testified in front of the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security to try to make a stand. This was the first time the House has ever held a hearing specifically about this issue. Hargitay said, “These kits represent human beings who have suffered greatly. Testing their rape kits sends victims the fundamental and crucial message that they and their cases matter. Not testing them sends the opposite message.” Although not much was done by the House due to chaos with other bills such as health care and taxes, Hargitay, Neal Baer (Executive Producer, SVU), NBC, RAINN, Human Rights Watch, state coalitions against sexual assault, Family Violence Prevention Fund, and various experts have joined to end the rape kit backlog and are hoping to make some changes this year in the new congressional session.

JHF Director of Advocacy and Strategic Partnerships, Sarah Tofte, said there’s no way to really know the exact number of untested rape kits in the U.S. because the only state required to track the number is Illinois, but most major jurisdictions have tens of thousands backlogged. She said it’s also difficult to estimate the total number of rapes that occur every year because the FBI is the only organization in charge of tracking them, and they have a very narrow definition of what qualifies something as “rape.” Throughout this movement, JHF and its partners have provided advocacy on state and federal levels to attain comprehensive rape kit reform and are working with the city of Detroit to end the backlog there. Tofte also said, “Rape kit testing can have such a big impact and move a case forward and it sends a message to the perpetrator that they can’t get away with it.” With all the effort being put forth toward this issue, within the next year or two, there will hopefully be substantial progress and the problem will come to an end.

We continue to be impressed by the work young people are doing around the country to bring attention to the backlog. We want to know about your efforts. Please email us at blog@joyfulheartfoundation.org.