'Lost Promise For Rape Victims' The majority of rape victims never report the crime, but those who do must be searched for physical evidence that is collected into a "rape kit." However, many thousands of rape kits are never opened and evidence that could identify a rapist often sits untouched in police department freezers.
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'Lost Promise For Rape Victims'

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'Lost Promise For Rape Victims'

'Lost Promise For Rape Victims'

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. According to the National Crime Victimization Survey, the majority of rape victims never report the crime. But those who do decide to help police find their attacker can face a difficult series of interviews and examinations. Victims can spend hours in a clinic or a hospital, speaking with counselors and cops, and be the subject of a search for physical evidence, hairs, bruises, fibers, fluids, material that's collected into a rape kit. And while victims submit to this process in good faith, in fact, many thousands of rape kits are never opened, and evidence which could identify a rapist often sits untouched in police-department freezers.

Sarah Tofte spent time researching this process at the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center in California, and wrote about it last month in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times called "Lost Promise for Rape Victims." If you've been through this as a victim, health professional, or in law enforcement, call and tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. You can also send us email. That address is talk@npr.org. Or you can share your experience on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Later on in the program, economic hard times and new family strains, "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson joins us. But first, the collections and analysis of rape kits. Sarah Tofte is a researcher for Human Rights Watch and joins us from our bureau in New York City. And it's nice to have you on Talk of the Nation today.

Ms. SARAH TOFTE (Researcher, Human Rights Watch; Report Author, "No Easy Answers: Sex Offender Laws in the U.S."): Thank you. It's nice to be here.

CONAN: And why did you decide to observe the process of how rape kits are collected?

Ms. TOFTE: Well, on a pretty basic research level, I wanted to know how it worked. I have, you know, thankfully not had to go through a rape-kit collection myself as a victim. And so I wanted to see what it involved on the part of the victim. And I also decided then to write about it, because I was struck at the amount of care that is taken on the part of the forensic nurse examiner, on the part of the team that's helping the victim through the process, and on the part of the victim herself to collect this evidence, in most cases, in the hope that it will go somewhere in the criminal-justice system. And...

CONAN: We'll get to that second part later, but I wanted to get back. A lot of people might think, oh my gosh, this is almost a second violation.

Ms. TOFTE: Well, that was one thing when we were thinking about doing an op-ed, and going into the details of what the collection process is like. We don't want to discourage victims from reporting the crime or from getting a rape-kit collection. It is a really important part of the process, and rape is a severely underreported crime as it is. And we want to everything we can to encourage victims to come forward. But at the same time, we felt that public officials haven't reacted as swiftly and effectively as we'd like them to about their rape-kit backlogs. And we thought that...

CONAN: And again, we'll get to that in a minute.

Ms. TOFTE: Yeah. Exactly.

CONAN: But I wanted to stick on this process, initially.

Ms. TOFTE: Sure.

CONAN: Because I - reading your story, I did not know what was involved. And you know, I've seen as many "CSI" television shows as anybody else, I suspect. And I really didn't know that it took all that time and the thoroughness involved in the examination.

Ms. TOFTE: Well, and - you know, I do want to say, on behalf of all the forensic nurses that are out there that have been specially trained to collect the kit, they do a fantastic job, and what is, you know, under any scenario just a terrible situation. No one wants to be in the position where they have to get a rape kit collected. There are wonderfully trained people who have made the process as easy as possible. That being said, I think - yes, most people don't realize. I think, you know, some people think maybe it's as simple as a gynecological exam. And clearly, it is a much more detailed, sort of in-depth, time-consuming, at times, you know, invasive process to collect this evidence.

CONAN: And that presents problems in and of itself. Victims have just been through something terrible.

Ms. TOFTE: Yeah, it's difficult. And as I said, I mean, I think that hospitals are getting better and better at making sure that their staff - they have specially trained staff to help victims through this so it can be as easy as possible for them. But again, when you look at the time that goes into it and all the care that goes into it, it's important that, as we'll speak about later, we hold police accountable for what they're doing with these rape kits.

CONAN: Sarah Tofte is a researcher for Human Rights Watch. If you'd like to join the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. We want to speak today with people who've been through the process of rape kit assembly, either as victim, as healthcare professional, or in law enforcement. Again, 800-989-8255. And Lisa is on the line with us. Lisa's calling from San Francisco.

LISA (Caller): Hi.


LISA: How are you? Yeah, I have been a rape counselor in both New York City and San Francisco, and you know, we would go to the hospitals as volunteers to hold the hands of the victims. And a lot of what we tried to do was just explain the process to them so that if they felt comfortable reporting, we could walk them through the evidence collection.

What became really surprising to me was that even after a victim had decided to go through the process, and you know, which is, like you said, a very, you know, difficult and painful process, all of that evidence would go to the district attorney's office, and the victim had no say as to whether or not they wanted to prosecute their attacker. This was something that was solely in the hands of the district attorney's office. And therefore, the idea of empowerment from, you know, standing in front of your attacker often never happened, and they had gone through the evidence-collection process for no reason.

CONAN: Did you find, Lisa, in talking with women who were going through this, that the process itself became a barrier to cooperation? No, I don't want to go through that?

LISA: Yes. Absolutely. But I have to say, I worked at two very good hospital programs, and they really just allowed us to spend some time with the victims and talk to them. And to be honest, most of them were not against the evidence collection. What they were more upset about was having to talk about it and describe the events, rather than, you know, being able to go through the...

CONAN: The physical examination. Yeah.

LISA: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. Sarah Tofte, did you watch that part of the process as well?

Ms. TOFTE: I did not watch, for probably obvious reasons. I didn't watch an actual victim going through the process. I will say, though, to sort of echo Lisa's point a little bit, is that in - I'm doing - in doing research on this issue, talking to a number of rape victims who went through the evidence-collection process, I mean, the - their strength and their courage and their determination to see their assailant brought to justice was incredibly inspiring. And I think it - I noticed that being a strain or a thread I kept hearing throughout all my victim interviews, was that they were determined to see their perpetrator brought to justice. And the evidence collection, they understood, in this sort of DNA age, "CSI" age, wasn't going to be an essential part of making that happen.

CONAN: Hm. Lisa, thanks very much for the phone call.

LISA: You're welcome.

CONAN: Joining us now is Gail Abarbanel. She runs the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, where Sarah Tofte made her observations for Human Rights Watch. And she joins us now from NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you on the program today, too.

Ms. GAIL ABARBANEL (Director, Rape Treatment Center, Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center): Thank you very much.

CONAN: And I know that Sarah brought, well, fresh eyes to this, but this is something you see every day, these examinations and these counseling sessions, too. And I know you must be, in one sense, pleased by the kind words about the care and meticulous process by which you and your staff go through this process. Nevertheless, I was wondering, you know, this is an enormously difficult process, inherently, for the victims.

Ms. ABARBANEL: Well, I think one dimension's been left out of the conversation, and that is that a lot of victims come to a hospital or medical setting for care because they're worried about their body and their soul, and they - you know, a lot of victims worry that they may be damaged inside. Even children who are sexually abused have these kinds of concerns. So, a part of the process, and a part of the exam, really reassures them and gives them information about whether or not they have injuries, what kind of injuries they have, you know, how they'll be treated and how they can heal from these injuries.

So, I think an important part of the process is really a reassurance to the victim about their wellbeing, about their physical health and wellbeing. You know, they have worries about HIV and sexually transmitted infections and the possibility of pregnancy. And all of those things are dealt with, and they're given the information they need to make informed choices about treatment and, you know, how they want to handle those things.

CONAN: And every case, I assume, is different, but I presume you deal with their health first and forensics second.

Ms. ABARBANEL: Yes, we do, and a big part of the process is a complete head-to-toe physical examination. You know, some victims have injuries they're not aware of initially, because they're in shock and they're numb. And when they have an exam, you know, they really - they can ask questions. A lot of victims will ask questions of medical professionals that they don't feel comfortable asking a law enforcement or the other people involved in the investigation of the case.

CONAN: And do you perceive it as your job to try to convince them to cooperate with the police? Or do you think it's just enough to present, these are your options and this is what would happen if?

Ms. ABARBANEL: Well, our job is to really to collect - you know, to provide the medical care, to provide counseling, to provide the support for victims and give them the information they need to make informed decisions about what they want to do. And we encourage them to have the evidence-collection part of the process, even if, at that time, they haven't made a decision about making a police report, because this kind of evidence can be irretrievably lost if you don't get it immediately.

So, we have a way - we actually offer these services regardless of the decision about reporting. And the victim can elect to have the exam and the forensic-evidence collection even if she hasn't made a decision about reporting. And we freeze the evidence, so it's always there for her to release if she changes her mind at a later date.

CONAN: And...

Ms. ABARBANEL: And you know, there's a new federal law that goes into effect in January that requires states to provide these examinations regardless of the victim's decision about reporting, and that is a new federal policy.

CONAN: And within that process, again, this is just a presumption on my part, but well, as you speak with these people, sometimes they come in days, or even weeks, after, because of shock, humiliation, shame, whatever, and at that point, you have to tell them that the evidence is likely gone.

Ms. ABARBANEL: The general standard around the country is to do these exams up to 96 hours after a sexual assault. And sometimes they are done longer - further out, if the victim still has visible injuries or other things that could be documented, you know, in a forensic way. But a lot of children who are sexually abused for a long period of time, chronically abused, who don't tell for a long period, you know, endure the abuse for a long period of time before they tell, they have the option of having what we call non-acute exams, where we're looking for healed trauma and not biological evidence, but other kinds of evidence.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Stay with us, if you will. We're talking with Gail Abarbanel and with Sarah Tofte about the process of collecting evidence for rape kits. And a little bit later, we'll talk about what happens to many of those rape kits, which turns out to be nothing. If you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call, 800-989-8255. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. After the trauma of rape, victims of sexual assault who decide to cooperate with police go through the collection of evidence. It's called a rape kit. We're talking about what that process is like for the victim and why then some rape kits are simply shelved and ignored for years.

Sarah Tofte, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, and Gail Abarbanel, she runs the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center in California, are our guests. If you've collected evidence for a rape kit, if you've been through this as a victim, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And let's go to Kristin. Kristin's on the line with us from Oakland, California.

KRISTIN (Caller): Hi there.


KRISTIN: Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

KRISTIN: Well, I was - I'm 23 and I was raped five years ago, when I was 18. And the process is pretty traumatizing. I actually stabbed my attacker in the process, and I was actually arrested for assault with a deadly weapon. I was held for 24 hours in county jail, in the bullpen. I was released, and my sister took me to a medical center for a rape-kit test. And although I consented to that, it was interviews with counselors that were just really tiresome, were really - I just didn't want to talk about it at that point. And I was actually even accused at one point by the police that I was lying because I was a white woman and I was just accusing my black boyfriend of raping me, is what they said.

CONAN: And after that experience, heaven forbid this should ever happen again, but would you go through the process again?

KRISTIN: Absolutely not. I've spent five years - I tried to work a lot with Oakland PD and San Francisco PD, because that's where the - my attacker lives, in Oakland, and the attack happened in San Francisco, and neither were helpful. My rape-kit test probably hasn't been opened. I probably wouldn't do it, to this day, if I had known that I would was going to stay up for more than 48 hours straight and just undergo so many tests and so much questioning.

CONAN: Gail Abarbanel, is Kristin's experience unusual?

Ms. ABARBANEL: I hope it's unusual. I think that there's been a lot of advancements made in the care and treatment of sexual-assault victims and also, you know, in forensic technology and how these exams are delivered. And the people who provide the medical care and the counseling part of this process are not investigators, and their job is not to, you know, disprove the victim's story. Their job is to collect information and collect evidence that then can be used, you know, in the investigation and the resolving of the case. So, I think there's been a lot of effort to improve this process and have a higher standard of care for sexual-assault victims, regardless of the circumstances of the victimization.

CONAN: Kristin, so sorry this happened to you. Thanks for the phone call.

KRISTIN: Thanks so much.

CONAN: Appreciate it. Let's see if we can go now to Debbie. And Debbie's on the line with us from Ludington in Michigan.

DEBBIE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air.

DEBBIE: Thank you for taking my call. I just wanted to make a comment. I was a professional emergency room nurse for over 15 years, and I probably collected over 500 evidence kits for the state police. And I never was subpoenaed to testify that I collected the test, as would been the procedure if it was prosecuted. And you know, we do a lot of, you know, supportive and medical measures in the emergency rooms to help the victims, and we aren't there to prosecute.

But I was - I'm always amazed that the amount of rapes that aren't prosecuted. And there's a high percentage that they know their rapist, they know their attacker, and that's a known fact. So, I just think I don't know, in law enforcement that it's just not pursued. I think they don't believe women. They just don't believe them.

CONAN: And it must get frustrating for you, too. I wouldn't suggest you get sloppy about this, but after hundreds, it must be incredibly frustrating that you've never been asked to testify about a single one.

DEBBIE: Exactly. But now we - you know, it's a, probably, to do it properly, a good three-hour process of collection and exams and stuff. And to take your time away from a busy, you know, emergency room and do this, that's - you know, sometimes it is frustrating. But it's important, and so you just do them - you know, you do them the way you're supposed to do them, and hopefully this is going to be the one, you know? But nope, never been called to testify over 20 years. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Debbie, thanks very much...

DEBBIE: That's how much time it was.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. And Sarah Tofte, that brings us to the other part of your story, that what happens with these rape kits after they're collected so meticulously.

Ms. TOFTE: Yes. Well, you know, we know right now there are about 400,000 untested rape kits, which people then refer to usually as the rape-kit backlog. And we know, for example, in Los Angeles City, under the jurisdiction of the LAPD, they have about 7,000 untested rape kits that are sitting in an evidence-storage facility, unopened. And I think that, you know, we don't keep very good statistics on, comprehensive statistics on, open rape kits. But I think it would be safe to say that most rape victims are not seeing their kits opened.

Or if they are, they're not hearing about the status of their kit. They're not hearing about whether or not it ever was submitted to the crime lab for testing, and they're not hearing about what the test results were. And in some cases, they're not even hearing when there is a hit in the DNA databank. There's a federal DNA databank that holds profiles, mostly of convicted offenders. And if you - sometimes when you put the DNA profile from a rape kit into the national DNA databank, you can get a match. And that might help you find the offender, if it's a stranger-rape case.

CONAN: And why is - did you call people and say is it simply a matter of resources, we don't have enough DNA technicians, not enough labs?

Ms. TOFTE: Resources is a huge part of the issue. It really is. It costs - it can cost a lot of money to get a lab, you know, a state crime lab, or a local crime lab, to be able to have the capacity to test every rape kit that is booked into evidence. So, resources is certainly a big part of the issue. I would also say that it could be seen as a priority issue as well. There are some things, some duties, responsibilities, of law enforcement where they never raise the resource issue.

But with rape kits, and testing rape kits, you constantly hear that from law enforcement, that if they had enough resources, they would test more of these kits. It's just that they don't have enough money. I believe - you know, they don't have enough money. But I think it's also a matter of making it a priority.

CONAN: How they use the money they do have, yes.

Ms. TOFTE: Exactly, exactly.

CONAN: And Gail Abarbanel, let me ask you about this.


CONAN: Yeah, I mean, is...

Ms. ABARBANEL: Can't wait to answer, yes.

CONAN: Well, I was just going to say you must share the frustrations to that emergency-room nurse who'd done 500 rape-kit collections, and as far as she knows, was - never acted on a single one.

Ms. ABARBANEL: You know, every victim who has a forensic exam and a rape kit collected, they trust that that evidence will be processed. And so many victims, they have no idea that their rape kits aren't being opened. So, it's a betrayal of the victim, but to me, it's also a betrayal of the public trust. We have the knowledge, we have the science, we have the technology, we have the ability to prevent crimes, to prevent rape, which has always been historically a hard crime to prevent. And we're not using it.

So, you know, the reality of the situation is that people are being raped, men, women, and children, who don't have to be. Because if we open those kits in the freezer, they would contain the DNA, many of them would, of offenders who, instead, remain on the street free to commit other crimes on a daily basis.

CONAN: Sarah Tofte, I did - I do think there was an effort a couple of years ago in New York City to - had the same problem, the backlog of unopened rape kits, and they pushed through an urgent policy to open them all and find out what could be found out. What was the result of that?

Ms. TOFTE: Well, I think New York's situation is - the results of getting rid of the rape-kit backlog has been fascinating to study. They had about 17,000 unopened rape kits. And they submitted all of those, for the most part, for testing, or they had a policy where they would test all of the backlogged rape kits. They weren't going to try to distinguish or pick out certain kits and leave others behind. And they currently have a policy where they test every kit that is booked into police evidence.

And what they found was, you know, they got about, I think, roughly 2,000 matches from testing those backlogged kits. And they're still getting matches, because as you're also expanding the offender databases, you're finding, you know, the profile from the rape kit is still sitting in the databank, and every day when we add new profiles, there's always the possibility that that old rape kit is going to hit to a new profile.

But what I found very fascinating - it obviously helps solve some stranger-rape case, but it also allowed, I think, police and prosecutors to open up whole new avenues of investigation in certain kinds of rape cases that may have or have traditionally been very difficult at times to get to move through the system, where, say, maybe a woman who is a drug addict has been raped by the person who sold her her drugs, and it might be very difficult to move that particular case forward.

But if you can get five crime scenes, similar crime scenes, women who are saying the same man who they went to go buy the drugs from has raped them, the prosecutors were able to, really, using the DNA evidence and follow-up investigation, were able to move cases forward and bring perpetrators to justice, in cases where, traditionally, I think, in our criminal-justice system, rape cases that may otherwise never get fully investigated, or not be brought forward, because the police or the prosecutors don't think that a jury is going to convict. And so that was what was..

CONAN: On behalf of a drug addict or a prostitute or somebody else in that situation.

Ms. TOFTE: Well, I think even, you know, there are situations where, you know, you look at everything that's in a rape kit. So, if you're testing all of those things, there are also instances where, even when you're talking about acquaintance rape, where you have a suspect, and the DNA profile may not reveal - we already know who the alleged rapist is. The fact is there are elements of the rape kit that can help sort of corroborate a victim's version of events, or discredit the offender's version of events, which becomes helpful when, you know, if the defense is going to be consent, there may be ways to really get at or take cracks at the defendant's credibility through some of this forensic evidence that you've collected.

Ms. ABARBANEL: And I think the other value of using DNA and opening the kits in acquaintance-rape cases is that acquaintance rapes are the most prevalent form of this kind of violence. Eighty percent of the cases are acquaintance rapes. And often when a law enforcement officer or a prosecutor gets one case, they're not that enthusiastic about prosecuting it. They have to make judgments about the victim.

But if you opened all these rape kits and you could link an acquaintance rapist to 10 cases, it would show a pattern of behavior and make much more easy to prosecute that offender and solve those cases. And the other thing, I just visited New York, and I was so impressed by what they have done, and I came back thinking, what a difference, the citizens of Los Angeles are so less protected than the citizens of New York, because we're not opening all of this evidence.

CONAN: We're speaking with Gail Abarbanel, the founder of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. Also with us is Sarah Tofte, who's a researcher for Human Rights Watch and wrote an op-ed about this issue for the Los Angeles Times, "Lost Promise for Rape Victims." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And let's get Lisa on the line, Lisa with us from San Jose in California.

LISA (Caller): Hi, thank you for having me.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

LISA: I'm a little emotional. So, let me just tell you why before I start speaking. I am actually a two-time survivor of sexual assault, and when I began - and that was when I was a kid. And then when I was an adult ,a friend of mine convinced me to become a sexual-assault counselor to help other survivors of sexual assault in going through it, and the range in ages of women that I supported were from babies, two years old, through women, grandmothers, in their 80s.

And I'm very fortunate to have - to be here in Santa Clara Country, where San Jose PD is exceptionally good, thoughtful, kind, and very, very respectful of survivors of sexual assault. And the YWCA Rape Crisis Center here is also an exceptional resource as is Valley Medical Center, which handles most of the survival - sexual-assault survivor cases here in Santa Clara County.

And I am so impressed with what I've heard your speakers saying about what the city of New York is doing, and I think that, for all of us, it's really important that we let our district attorney offices know that it's not acceptable to set aside survivor cases. And as your speakers have indicated, you can, by the weight of DNA evidence, identify patterns of behavior, repetitive behavior, because everybody who's worked in the field at all knows that rapists are serial. This is one of the very few crimes that is a serial crime, and a rapist doesn't do it just once. He continues.

CONAN: And Lisa, in your case, and I'm sorry to ask you about it, but was evidence collected and was it productive?

LISA: Well, I was five years old the first time and I did not tell my parents. And I was 10 years old the second time, and I did not tell my parents until I was 18, and then, of course, my parents were absolutely devastated. And this was a long time ago. This was 40 years ago. And you know, and I don't know now if I - you know, if it happened to me today, I would absolutely, in a heartbeat, call San Jose PD and call the Y and go over there and meet one of the counselors and do it. Because I am - I think that this - the case of sexual assault against women in particular is one of the most horrendous human-rights violations that we have going on here in the United States. And I think it is devastating the way women are treated, because any survivor of sexual assault is always treated as though it was her fault. And as a counselor, going through that and working with women, that's their biggest fear. They're embarrassed.

CONAN: And I don't mean to cut you off, but I wanted to give Gail Abarbanel a chance to say - well, I assume that not always that women are treated as being responsible for their own condition here.

Ms. ABARBANEL: No, absolutely not. You know, Los Angeles has wonderful law-enforcement investigators and prosecutors, but I think overall, generally, across the country, you know, this has been the history of rape, that women are looked at with suspicion if they - we even have language for it - if they claim to be raped or they allege rape. So, it's - a lot of work has been done to overcome these attitudes, but there're still remnants of that in a lot of places and there is a lot of discrimination in acquaintance-rape cases. They are rarely prosecuted.

CONAN: Lisa, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

LISA: Thank you for having me.

CONAN: And I would like to thank our guests. You've just heard Gail Abarbanel, the founder of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. Thank you so much for your time today.

Ms. ABARBANEL: Thank you.

CONAN: And Sarah Tofte, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, who observed the process there at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center and wrote an op-ed for - about it for the Los Angeles Times called "Lost Promise for Rape Victims," and Sarah, thank for being with us today, too.

Ms. TOFTE: Thank you so much for doing this show.

CONAN: Coming up, the deepening economic gloom continues, and it's beginning to affect family dynamics. Never fear. "Ask Amy's" Amy Dickinson will join us with some advice on how to tell Uncle Marty you just can't lend him any more cash, at least not for that other gallon of gasoline. That's next. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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