No room for justice

Emma Lingo, news-features writer

Chole Hooker

*names changed for anonymity

When Sam*, KHS student, was raped he did not tell the police. He did not tell his parents. In fact, he told no one.

During the last months of his eighth grade year, when most students were getting excited for the upcoming spring break, Sam was raped by his girlfriend while they were on a date. After keeping how he felt about the assault bottled up for months, he slowly began to open up. He got many supportive responses from his friends, but others were not as sympathetic. Classmates began to calling him a slut and one went of out the way to tell Sam that he deserved what happened. They said it was his fault he was raped. At first, Sam blamed himself for the assault.

“Afterward, I thought, ‘What did I do wrong?’” Sam said. “We were dating and [sex] is a part of dating, so maybe it was my fault. I feel like there’s a part of me missing [since my girlfriend was] never prosecuted, but proving to the system that [sexual assault] happened is very difficult.”

When a sexual assault occurs, the victim has the opportunity to participate in a forensic exam to preserve possible DNA evidence and receive medical care, and all evidence from the exam is stored in a box called a sexual assault kit (SAK), more commonly known as a rape kit. While rape kits can last for years and be a crucial part of prosecuting a rapist, getting one can be a lengthy and difficult process. During the forensic exam that can take up to four hours, the victim has to receive the kit before showering after the assault and involves the victims being photographed and swabbed where they have been violated. Despite the grueling process and effort put into getting a rape kit, police procedure has resulted in many of  these kits not being tested.

Proving to the system that [sexual assault] happened is very difficult.”

— Sam*

Although the reaction of Sam’s classmates may seem extreme and shocking, research from the Department of Justice (DOJ) shows their behavior is often mirrored by police. Police officers have dismissed rape and sexual assault claims, criticized and harassed victims, joked about rape, repeatedly abused their power and been have been the subject of many sexual misconduct investigations. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), this management and behavior toward rape cases has contributed to a rape kit backlog. This tool has been pushed aside by certain police officers who feel rape is not a big deal and stations who do not have the space or funds for them. This has lead to a buildup of untested kits.

“Rape kits provide a powerful tool for identifying and prosecuting potential sex [offenders],” Josh Hawley, Missouri attorney general, in a November 2017 press release said. “But both in Missouri and across the country, thousands of rape kits go untested, hamstringing law enforcement efforts to prosecute offenders. Every rape kit that goes untested [signifies] a rapist who remains on the streets, able to attack again, and a survivor who is denied justice. This is unacceptable.”

The Missouri Attorney General’s Office said they hope to determine by early next year how many untested rape kits are on shelves in Missouri, a first step in an effort to improve the state’s response to sexual assaults. Loree Anne Paradise, the attorney general’s deputy chief of staff, said in an official statement the office is looking for data from police, hospitals, crime labs and other places where the kits are stored. Once the audit is finished, she said the office will make recommendations on how to reduce the backlog, their focus being on the causes of the issue and how to eliminate them.

The rape kit backlog is horrific and it’s about time that those in power listened and used their power to [end it].”

— Susan Kidder

According RAINN numerous factors have contributed to the local and nationwide backlog.  Police officers have to deal with lack of resources (specifically funds to pay labs to do the testing and room to store the kits) unclear policies and lack of training on how to handle sexual assault cases. According to RAINN, with 57 out of 1,000 sexual assault cases resulting in an arrest, there is much less prosecution, rarely a guilty verdict or jail time and many victims are unwilling to press charges.

“People don’t report things because they think things won’t happen,” Carrie*, KHS student and sexual assault victim, said. “The automatic reaction is ‘It didn’t really happen and you’re just saying it to get them in trouble or because it was a failed relationship and you’re sad about it.’ That’s not the case.”

With the audit’s goal of identifying what can be done to help end the current backlog and prevent yet another backlog from happening in the future, survivors and supporters of those like Sam and Carrie hope that rape kits will begin to be tested, and quickly.

“Even though it was two years ago, I’m still not over it and it’s still a huge part of my life,” Sam said. “It frustrates me that we have [rape kits], but they’re not tested. [Rapists] need to be held accountable for what they have done, and it is terrible that [rape kits] are being [neglected].”

According to RAINN, 15 percent of survivors from 2005 to 2010 chose not to report that they had been raped because they believed the police could or would not do anything. The backlog has helped solidify the belief that police cannot or will not do anything. Many departments do not have the storage, funds or up-to-date sexual assault policies, meaning they cannot properly help. While others, like those investigated by the DOJ, do not prioritize sexual assault cases and mistreat victims meaning they choose to not help. It hoped that issues like these will be addressed by the state of Missouri to help put an end to the rape kit pileup.

Testing rape kits sends a message to survivors that they matter.”

— Susan Kidder

“The rape kit backlog is horrific and it’s about time that those in power listened and used their power to [end it],” Susan Kidder, executive director of Safe Connections, a domestic violence service center, said. “An important element of [a rape kit] is that it provides a critical degree of evidence for the investigation trial and conviction. Essentializing storage, establishing rigid testing timelines and expectations, and just doing what’s right [can help end the backlog]. Testing rape kits sends a message to survivors that they matter.”