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What Happens to Rape Kits in Illinois?

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When a crime is committed against you or a loved one, you expect justice. At the very least, you expect that those in the position to pursue justice -- the police, the city, the state -- will do everything in their power to do so. Trained on decades of Law & Order, we expect nothing less than the full, furious force of Mariska Hargitay or Jerry Orbach working doggedly to bring our case to rest and our mind to peace.

As we know, life is not directed by Dick Wolf, and not every crime ends so succinctly. And if that crime is rape, the odds are stacked against you. Nationally, about 22 percent of rapes lead to an arrest; in Illinois, which boasts one of the lowest arrest rates, that number is 11 percent. The reasons for this are vast, but a chief cause is likely the 4,000 untested rape kits currently sitting, until recently forgotten, on the shelves of Illinois police departments.

Welcome to the life of a rape case in Illinois.

If a crime has been committed, a victim and their family logically hopes for the most experienced, trained investigators to work on their case. The trained version of a detective in rape cases is the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), a registered, forensic nurse who has undergone 40-50 hours of classroom work and six months to one year of clinical requirements, all of which train him or her to deal with physical and psychological care of sexual assault victims while collecting evidence of the crime. SANEs who have been through only the classroom work are "SANE-trained," while SANEs who have completed all the training are "SANE-certified."

Specifically, SANEs are experts at taking victims through the 15-step rape kit (a set of tools used by a medical professional to gather evidence from a victim following a rape, which are given to all hospitals for free by the state), ranging from paperwork and documentation, to an oral history, to a basic physical examination of cuts and bruises, to pregnancy and STD testing, to an intensive, head-to-toe examination designed to collect every possible fragment of evidence, DNA or otherwise, from a victim's body. 

Last week, Attorney General Lisa Madigan gathered members of her staff, a SANE, members of the press and leaders from several of Chicago's women-oriented organizations for a "round table" to discuss a new law regarding the testing of rape kits. "This is not the glamorous press conference," noted one of the members of Madigan's staff, looking around the basic room of a podium positioned in front of three rows of tables. Of the 15 or so people in the room, the two men present were sound and camera crew for female radio and television reporters.

Sharon Dimitrijevich, a SANE-certified nurse who serves as director of SANEs in Lake County, walked the audience step-by-step through the kit, which starts with having the victim sign a waiver permitting the medical professional to perform the kit.

The process is, to make a gross understatement, thorough. Imagining a child, woman or man who had already been through likely the greatest trauma in his or her life - and, perhaps as is natural but unavoidable, imagining yourself or one of your friends in that role - having to withstand such a physically and emotionally taxing exam is difficult to wrap your brain around.

As Sharon worked her way through every swab, envelope, probing question, photograph, medication, document, needle, test and speculum of the kit, she made several mentions of ways in which she modified the order or procedure of particular steps in an effort to make the process easier on the victim at every turn. She also emphasized repeatedly the importance of giving the victim an active voice throughout the process, which can take up to four hours. "She has to have choices whenever possible, because her choice was taken away from her," Sharon pointed out. That's true right up until the end, when the victim is asked to sign a consent form permitting the kit to be released into police evidence. In her many years of performing rape kits, Sharon said, she'd only had one victim decline consent.

(Sharon's nuanced approach to the rape kit raised an obvious question: how likely is it that a sexual assault victim who walks into a hospital will be examined by a SANE? In Lake County, according to Sharon, three of the seven hospitals have SANE nurses, one of whom isn't allowed by her superiors to examine rape victims. According to Rape Victim Advocates Executive Director Sharmili Majmudar, three of the 11 Cook County hospitals to which RVA provides 24-hour assistance have either trained or certified SANE-As or SANE-Ps on staff. Sharmili notes, "There is no city, state or county-wide tracking of SANE nurses in terms of which hospitals have SANEs, how many, whether they are simply trained or trained and certified, and what kind of certification they have," adding that in the majority of RVA's experiences, a SANE is not present. Another complication, Sharon added, is that many of the hospitals might not be equipped with some of the proper equipment, such as a colposcope, necessary to perform the kit to its best advantage.)

After the rape kit is completed, it's released into the hands of local law enforcement, who are then supposed to turn it over to an Illinois State Police (ISP)  lab for testing and processing so that the case may be pursued.

Key words: supposed to.

Until recently in Illinois -- and currently, in other states -- there have been no formal guidelines for when and how rape kits are to be turned over to labs and processed. A Human Rights Watch report released in July 2010 found that only one in five rape kits entered into law enforcement evidence in Illinois over the last 15 years could actually be confirmed as tested. That means of the 20% of these reported rapes, in a crime that is already under-reported (only about one-third of sexual assaults result in the completion of a rape kit, and it's estimated that 60% of sexual assaults go unreported) are actually given their due process.

Though federal statistics indicate there may be 350,000 of these untested rape kits nationwide, firm national numbers are hard to come by, due largely to the unregulated procedures for processing the kits. For the victims, that means the often physically and emotionally painful methods of gathering evidence of the crime perpetrated against them were in vain, and that their cases will remain "suspended" for an indefinite period of time. In some instances, the cases are simply closed, unsolved, without ever notifying the victim.

In Illinois, this issue was recently addressed when Attorney General Lisa Madigan, spurred by the dismal rates of rape kit testing, worked with her office, ISP, local law enforcement, state's attorneys and the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault to draft the Sexual Assault Sexual Submission Act (PA 96-1011), which was passed into law and went into effect on September 1, 2010. The new law - the first of its kind to be passed by a state - mandates that, going forward, local law enforcement must submit untested rape kits to ISP labs for testing within 10 business days of receiving the kit from the hospital and ISP labs must analyze the kits within 6 months of receipt. In addition, it requires that all outstanding rape kits in local law enforcement be inventoried, with a plan to test all backlogged kits submitted by February 14, 2011.

"If we are not testing rape kits, we are not pursuing justice for victims of sexual assault," asserted Madigan at the round table, after rattling off the oft-cited statistics: in the U.S., one in six women, and one in 33 men, have been the victim of rape. Seventy-one percent of sexual offenders will re-offend. There are 24,500 registered sex offenders in Illinois (a number Madigan discovered for herself with a quick Google search after first learning of the rate of untested rape kits in the state). 

When pressed about why so many rape kits were allowed to sit in the pipeline of the proper channels for so long, Madigan gave a frank response: "I fear it's because our law enforcement doesn't take crimes against women seriously." 

Madigan succinctly addressed the elephant in the room head-on: toay, there is still a stigma against those who accuse others of rape. They are called liars; they are called sluts; they are called drunks; they are called teases; they are said to have been asking for it; they are questioned on their outfit, their makeup, their sexual histories. But in fact, false allegations of rape account for about 2-8% of rapes reported to law enforcement agencies - the same percentage of false reports for other violent crimes. As Sharon pointed out, the public expects rape victims to be "beaten with an inch of their life," for there to be immediate visual assurance of the crime; the more common scenario is a nondescript-looking woman or man approaching an ER nurse and stating, "I've just been raped." One only needs to look to recent high-profile rape and sexual assault cases in the news for confirmation that an outsized burden of proof is still placed on rape victims.

In fact, as complications layer upon complications, the dismally low arrest and conviction rates for rape and sexual assault cases begin to seem inevitable, rather than shocking. This common bias against rape victims and the validity of their experiences, whether conscious or unconscious, makes the proper collection and processing of rape kits all the more crucial.

The Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act, Madigan hopes, will move those numbers in an upward direction. She's quick to point out that in New York City, where a similar ordinance was passed, the mandatory testing of rape kits led to a rise in arrest rates from 40 to 70 percent. The Budget Committee of the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority recently made a $276,000 grant for the ISP's Statewide Rape Kit Backlog Relief Program; Rep. Jan Schakowsky is planning on working on an earmark to fund the testing of DNA rape kits in the next legislative session for FY12, according to the AG's office. And with the complicated statues of limitations in Illinois relating to sexual offenses, there's no telling the effect the processing of these 4,000 kits could have on these suspended cases. Hopefully, for sexual assault and rape survivors and their families, that means the possibility of some closure. And for the nurses, doctors, advocates and other professionals who work tirelessly to help bring justice to rape victims, it means their work will less often be in vain.

(Follow me on Twitter @CassandraGaddo.) 

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