Here’s One Way Sexual Assault Victims Are Actually Being Helped

Most victims who get rape kits don’t pay for them. But, according to a new study, there are still major failings — especially for minorities.

NEW YORK, NY: Protesters stand outside of a Manhattan court as former IMF director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who was accused of sexual assault, exits on August 23, 2011 in New York City.
National Journal
Elahe Izad
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Elahe Izad
May 14, 2014, 1 a.m.

There’s been much at­ten­tion lately on the huge back­log of rape kits in the U.S., with forensic evid­ence sit­ting on shelves and the vic­tims of sexu­al as­sault mis­takenly think­ing their cases were be­ing in­vest­ig­ated.

But at least when it comes to get­ting those rape kits to vic­tims in the first place, there is one pos­it­ive de­vel­op­ment: Most sexu­al-as­sault vic­tims who get med­ic­al forensic ex­ams (called rape kits) ap­pear to be get­ting them free of charge and without hav­ing to re­port a crime to the po­lice.

That’s ac­cord­ing to a new, 118-page Justice De­part­ment-fun­ded re­port that sheds light on the ways states are im­ple­ment­ing the Vi­ol­ence Against Wo­men Act, and how they are pay­ing for rape kits.

The re­port found that two-thirds of states pay for rape kits us­ing vic­tim com­pens­a­tion funds, which are in­ten­ded to off­set costs for vic­tims of all types of crimes, not just sexu­al as­sault. The oth­er 11 states pay for rape kits us­ing law-en­force­ment or pro­sec­u­tion funds.

The pay­ment piece is im­port­ant, be­cause there is a policy and philo­soph­ic­al de­bate about how to pay for rape kits, says the Urb­an In­sti­tute’s Jan­ine Zweig, the lead au­thor of the re­port.

“What we found for the states us­ing [vic­tim] com­pens­a­tion funds, the pay­ment pro­cess is quite seam­less; very few stor­ies about vic­tims be­ing in­ap­pro­pri­ately billed,” she said. “But the de­bate is about wheth­er a fund that’s in­ten­tion is to dir­ectly be­ne­fit vic­tims should cov­er forensic evid­ence.”

Law en­force­ment and pro­sec­utors be­ne­fit from the evid­ence from rape kits, so some be­lieve that law-en­force­ment funds should be used to pay for them. The latest it­er­a­tion of VAWA, passed in 2013, for­bids the prac­tice of char­ging vic­tims and then re­im­burs­ing them the full cost.

Some states have caps on the amount that the ex­ams can cost; if hos­pit­als con­duct ex­ams at a cost that ex­ceeds that cap, some­times they take a loss. Hos­pit­al of­fi­cials are wor­ried about the sus­tain­ab­il­ity of such a prac­tice,and ser­vice pro­viders are also wor­ried about the fu­ture of rape-kit fund­ing.

The re­port, con­duc­ted by the Urb­an In­sti­tute us­ing a $525,464 award from the DOJ’s Na­tion­al In­sti­tute of Justice, also found there are still bar­ri­ers to rape-kit ac­cess for Nat­ive Amer­ic­ans, im­mig­rants, and non-Eng­lish speak­ers.

For ex­ample, in one state with mul­tiple In­di­an re­ser­va­tions, only one re­ser­va­tion had sexu­al-as­sault nurse ex­am­iners. Cul­tur­al bar­ri­ers are also a big prob­lem, and non-Eng­lish speak­ers face a lack of trans­lat­ors — par­tic­u­larly when they of­ten have to rely on fam­ily to trans­late in oth­er situ­ations.

The 2005 ver­sion of VAWA man­dated that for states to be eli­gible for grant money, they have to provide free ex­ams re­gard­less of wheth­er vic­tims re­port crimes to po­lice. That’s im­port­ant, be­cause there is a short peri­od of time to col­lect evid­ence, yet the de­cision of wheth­er to press charge can take time.

“The de­coup­ling of those two things was very im­port­ant in 2005, but what we haven’t seen is large num­bers of vic­tims get­ting those ex­ams and then not go­ing to the po­lice,” Zweig said. “Most people went to get ex­ams and were re­port­ing to the po­lice.”

That means there could be many vic­tims who aren’t get­ting rape kits, and then miss­ing out on the oth­er as­pects of the ex­am, in­clud­ing STD test­ing and get­ting linked to crisis coun­selors and ser­vice pro­viders.

“The pay­ment is­sues are ob­vi­ously very im­port­ant, to make sure that the vic­tims that get these ex­ams, that there are sys­tems in place so that they’re not saddled with a bill after the most trau­mat­ic event in their lives,” Zweig said.

But she cited Bur­eau of Justice stat­ist­ics that show only one-third of vic­tims re­port rape, and less than a quarter seek help from rape crisis cen­ters or loc­al ad­vocacy groups. Giv­en the re­port’s find­ings, it stands to reas­on many of those vic­tims aren’t get­ting ex­ams and are los­ing out on both as­sist­ance and the op­por­tun­ity to see as­sail­ants pro­sec­uted.

“The lar­ger con­text is there are many vic­tims who are not get­ting any help,” Zweig said.

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