Victim Notification Best Practices: Why They Matter

As a Board Member of the Joyful Heart Foundation, I am particularly proud to be part of the release of the organization’s new report: Navigating Notification: A Guide to Re-engaging Sexual Assault Survivors Affected by the Untested Rape Kit Backlog. This report, along with other national studies conducted specifically on victim notification, offers protocols, policies and practices that honor survivor experiences in addressing the rape kit backlog. 

For the past four decades, my primary research, policy and community work has focused on violence against women and children, particularly on domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse in Native Hawaiian, Asian and other people of color populations, as well as in LGBTQ communities. During my time in this field of work, we have discovered that survivors around the country want to know what happened to their kits and they are disappointed, angry and dismayed when the criminal justice system does not take their cooperation in the evidence-gathering process seriously. 

Any sexual assault survivor who consents to the invasive, lengthy, embarrassing and painful evidence examination has already experienced the most significant and life-changing trauma they will ever know: the violation of their bodies, minds and spirits by sexual assailants. Therefore, the decision to undergo a medical evidentiary exam is often made during a time of crisis in one’s identity and sense of personal safety. The research and clinical reports regarding survivor decision­making around rape evidence exams find that survivors usually consent to the invasive evidence gathering procedure because they hope, believe and expect that their offenders will be held responsible. Whether or not they agree to participate in the investigatory or prosecutorial process, survivors agree to a rape kit because they believe it is the right thing to do and they trust that the state and sexual assault advocates will aggressively investigate and pursue justice in their cases.

If the majority of victims who report to the police have experienced the most heinous form of violence, we must believe that testing their kits can also finally bring them a sense of security and well-being. Many survivors of violent sexual assaults are threatened by assailants and told that they or their loved ones will never be safe again; that is, rapists commonly remind victims that they are known to their perpetrators, that they will be watched, and that they will face further assaults if they report to authorities. To know that your assailant has actually been arrested and imprisoned, died, or moved to another city is all part of the healing process for survivors and it is particularly traumatic for them to know that their assailant has not been identified or has actually reoffended. We owe the testing of all backlogged kits to every survivor who “gave” this evidence to authorities, but we also owe this to our communities as a whole as we work to apprehend any and all violent offenders who may act again if not held accountable.

We should be cognizant of and sensitive towards all rape and sexual assault survivors as we consider testing rape evidence kits, whether backlogged or not. But, we do not need to speak for them. The majority of sexual assault and victims’ rights organizations around the United States—including survivor groups—support universal testing of rape kits. They have spoken for themselves, and we must now listen.

- By Dr. Valli Kalei Kanuha, April 7, 2016. Dr. Kanuha is a Professor of Sociology and Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she has been a tenured faculty member for nearly 20 years. For the past four decades, she has been a clinician, consultant and researcher on gender violence and is considered a national expert on these issues. 

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.

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END THE BACKLOG is a JOYFUL HEART FOUNDATION initiative and a proud supporter of