The Fem Spot

Untested rape kits in America

Posted in News, Politics by femspotter on December 20, 2009

December 20, 2009

** To support the nonpartisan Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act of 2009, visit http://www.hrw.kintera.org/rape-kits. **

According to a recent 5-month CBS News investigation exclusive, at least 20,000 rape kits have gone untested in the United States. To put this figure in context, the investigation revealed some startling facts and figures about rape in the U.S. at large:

  • nearly 90,000 women reported they were raped in the U.S. during 2008; an additional 75,000 rapes are estimated to have gone unreported
  • the arrest rate for the same period was only 25%, less than the 79% for murder and 51% for accusations of aggravated assault
  • according to RAINN (The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), only 6% of rapists will ever spend a day in jail
  • when an alleged victim contacts law enforcement claiming to have been raped, she or he generally receives a test (a rape kit) that will help prove that the rape did in fact occur and, with DNA evidence gathered from both the test and the suspect, that the suspect did commit said rape; but the investigation revealed that at least 20,000 of those tests administered in America have gone untested, making it impossible for the legal system to potentially punish at least 20,000 rapists
  • many states have revealed that they have unanalyzed rape kits collecting dust on shelves: CBS provides a state by state breakdown
  • in addition, officials from at least 12 major cities (Anchorage, Baltimore, Birmingham, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Oakland, Phoenix and San Diego) said they have no idea how many of rape kits in storage are untested
  • according to law enforcement officials, rape kits don’t get fully tested because of cost (up to $1,500 each) or because victims sometimes recant their accusations
  • New York City purports to test every single rape kit it executes – over 1,300 in 2008 – and its arrest rate is 70%

This information may provide answers to some of the big questions about our human inability to eradicate rape that feminists tackle on a daily basis. Clearly, in a judicial system with a goal of discouraging rape crimes by harshly punishing rapists, that goal cannot be realized when so few rapists are punished. But the information forces us to ask additional questions. Why are roughly 75,000 women silent about rape? Why isn’t it policy, at the state or federal level, to complete the rape investigation promptly? Why has insufficient money been allocated to these investigations, making $1,500 per rape accusation unfeasible for local law enforcement? Why do some rape victims claim that they have been raped only to revoke the accusation later?

I wish I had answers to these questions, but I only have speculation. I suspect that many women don’t value themselves enough to feel they deserve American “justice.” I suspect that many of them are afraid to cry out for help and, in doing so, help protect others from violent offenders. I only know that I want them to feel empowered enough to do so.

Much of the mystique around rape exists because our society still disagrees amongst itself on the nature of rape: is it sex or is it violence? The legal definition of “forcible sexual relations” does not coincide with many philosophical definitions that account for sex that occurs when one party is unconscious or under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Does date rape or rape in circumstances where alcohol is present mean that a rapist is a corrupt individual who will always pose a threat to other people? Can rapists be rehabilitated? Is rape as damaging a crime as other forms of assault or even murder? I just don’t know. Does anybody?

If rape is a byproduct of misogyny, then the sooner we eradicate gender expectations from our culture (i.e. women are supposed to be meek and sexually accommodating and men are supposed to take what they want, by force when necessary) the better for all potential rape victims. If you have to hate someone in order to rape them, then let’s work to eliminate the source of hatred: misunderstandings of who we are and how we think we each should behave. But this theoretical notion may not be possible to implement at all, and certainly not right away: it will happen generationally if it can.

I am sure of several things:

  1. while New York City’s arrest rate is not good enough at 70%, it is better than the national average by far, proving that follow through on these rape kits will help to put more rapists behind bars
  2. the 51% arrest rate for aggravated assault, which is more than double that of rape, proves that rape is not taken as seriously by law enforcement at large as are other forms of violence
  3. a victim doesn’t get to decide when a crime against her/him is punishable or not; ergo recanted accusations should still be followed by fully executed rape tests in order to prevent a possible rapist from performing future violent acts on others
  4. 1 in 6 women and 1 in 33 men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes, but there are SOME things that people can do to protect themselves SOMETIMES (RAINN)

I do not subscribe to the notion that women are victims and men are rapists by default – that is to say that I think we can take steps to try and protect ourselves from rapists, and not all men are potential rapists. In the case of the CBS investigation’s rape victim Valerie Neumann, then 21, her alleged rape occurred after she and a “friend of a friend” spent hours drinking, she had thrown up and subsequently she had passed out. Why was she drinking to excess with a man she had just met? Had she stayed sober and stayed at the public place (a bowling alley) where she met this man, she might have removed herself from such a dangerous situation. Of course, that does not preclude an assailant from following her home or secluding her in a dark, private corner of the parking lot. No. The world is a dangerous place SOMETIMES. A rape is NEVER the fault of the victim, but Neumann could have taken better care. College age women are 4 times as likely to be sexually assaulted than others because of the drinking and the lack of security they endure. And 43% of rapes take place between 6 p.m. and midnight with an additional 24% before 6 a.m. (RAINN) Don’t walk home alone at night. Don’t go anywhere with a man you just met. Don’t drink from open containers. Don’t drink alcohol at all. (Is this fair? No.)

Neumann deserves “justice” for the crime that was committed against her. According to her preliminary examination, there was enough evidence to suggest forced penetration, and semen was found in her underwear. The suspect provided a DNA sample, but Neumann’s rape kit was never fully tested. The explanation: prosecutors did not think that they could win a case against the suspect.

It is my belief that rape has little or nothing to do with sex – sex is rape’s milieu – and almost everything to do with hatred and violence. In Neumann’s case, a date rape, alcohol played a significant role in her sexual experience. Whether the law considers it “rape” or not is irrelevant. It’s still wrong and painful for the victim. While a courtroom drama may not have ensued, a fully executed test confirming the suspect as the perpetrator would have at least resulted in an arrest: and an arrest would have sent a message that this type of violence will not be tolerated…at least to the lone perpetrator and maybe to some of his friends.

I pose a call to action with regard to getting the rape arrest rate to nationally meet and hopefully exceed that of New York City’s and one that would increase the sexual education of teenagers and young adults in high school and college. I ask the Federal Government to force state governments to force local law enforcement officials to fully examine ALL rape kits. Additionally, I ask that the Federal Government mandate that all high school seniors take and pass a responsible sex education class before graduating. The class would entail an understanding of sexuality, its consequences, both for violent sexuality and consensual sexuality, and a signed pledge from students (male and female) to be responsible sexual participants. While conservatives will note that this may cause a slight increase in tax rates nationwide, we cannot continue to be negligent and naive about sexuality and violence. (To you cheapskates, my response: Go back to kindergarten and learn how to share!) We need to teach boys how to control their bodies and respect human beings. We need to teach girls and boys how to protect themselves and make responsible choices. And most of all, we need to teach ourselves that one rape is too many; certainly, 20,000 or more unpunished is grotesque and inhumane.

If you agree, or if you are at least concerned, contact Attorney General Eric Holder, a public servant, at:

U.S. Department of Justice
950 Pennsylvania Avenue,
NW Washington, DC 20530-0001
phone: 202-353-1555
email: askdoj@usdoj.gov

Be sure to include a copy of the CBS news report with your letters and emails.

Think you can’t or aren’t making a difference by writing? Meet Florence Holway:

In 1991, Mrs. Holway, then 75, was brutally raped in her rural New Hampshire home by a 25-year-old intruder. There was nothing she did to deserve this attack. There was nothing she should have done to prevent it. But that didn’t stop her from working to correct it. Her indignation and 12 years of hard work inspired the state of New Hampshire to change its rape laws. While Holway’s rapist served a mere 12 years in prison for his crime, future rapists will serve 15 to 20 years for first offenses, 20-40 for second offenses and life in prison without parole for third offenses. HBO made a documentary about this struggle and accomplishment called Rape in a Small Town.

Anyone can and should make a difference. We have to start somewhere. So pick up your pens!

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20 Responses

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  1. Mom said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:03 am

    This is a tremendously focused and poignant article. Thank you
    I am concerend about false accusations of rape, though and they do happen.
    Such allegations can permanently ruin a person’s life because once the accusation has been made it is never erased from some minds.
    There is no easy answer except to continue to try to educate all people about taking charge of and responsiblity for their own personal acts and behaviors.

    • femspotter said, on December 21, 2009 at 8:39 am

      I agree that false accusations are a concern, but they are a minority concern. And this study was talking about arrest and not conviction rates. We have first hand experience with a false accusation, Mom, so we might be tempted to think that it’s more common than it really is. Although rape should not be mentioned in situations where a woman feels “kind of uncomfortable” about having engaged in a sex act after the fact, mostly rape refers to instances where consent was lacking during said act.

      I think the main problem stems from a cultural confusion about and, in some cases, indifference to rape. If the arrest rate went up, this climb would signal to our population that accusations of rape are taken seriously. And certainly, if there is no evidence to support forced penetration, then there is no conviction to be made. We need a cultural/educational shift in values so that our youth understand the gravity of rape and conversely the gravity of making false accusations. Mad at your boyfriend? Don’t tell people he raped you! That’s serious!

      I do think sex education should be mandated for girls as well as boys of high school age to prepare them for dangerous college years. I was not as responsible about my safety as I should have been. Why? Probably because I learned that sex was a way to validate myself: I am beautiful, I am sexy, I am desirable… In retrospect, I know that this lack of confidence could have been solved in so many other ways if only there was a resource to help clear up my myopia.

  2. Mom said, on December 21, 2009 at 9:31 am

    All good points. But sometimes as much as you want to provide information, it is only heard when the recipient is willing to listen. Deaf ears….etc
    I agree that the rate of testing fulfullment and arrest/prosecution needs to be much improved. I hesitate to ask but is it a man’s game in law enforcement (conscious or otherwise) that keeps rape results so conflicted?

    • femspotter said, on December 21, 2009 at 5:05 pm

      There’s probably some of that at work, but I think largely it’s a money issue and also a legal discrepancy. In the Neumann case, the kit was done and ready to be analyzed and authorities had collected a sample from the suspect…it was a mere $1,500 and a prosecutor’s decision away from proof of rape. I did ask a police officer I know who was shocked by the statistic and he said he didn’t know any cops that wouldn’t take a rape claim seriously and suspected that this failure is happening at a bureaucratic level. Not that his side of things is all inclusive, but it was interesting to hear an on the job perspective.

      The most probable cause is indifference: that’s why there’s no money and no fortitude. I just heard about this today: a Brooklyn pregnant woman, age 25, died after being ignored by two off-duty EMTs who told her to call 911 and left the scene. What?! Perhaps she wouldn’t have survived had they intervened…but this kind of indifference makes it really difficult to improve conditions for women, pregnant or otherwise. It makes the world an ugly place to live.

      http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/12/21/eutisha-revee-rennix-unbo_n_399604.html

  3. femspotter said, on December 22, 2009 at 8:18 am

    To Eric Holder and the Department of Justice:

    I am deeply concerned about the alarming statistic that more than 20,000 rape kits in America are untested. Furthermore, I am concerned that the national arrest rate for rape is only 25% (2008). In New York City, where every rape kit is fully tested, the arrest rate has been 70%, going a long way toward making the city safer for women.

    I suggest that regulation of rape investigations should be implemented at the federal level so that lack of funds or lack of probable conviction doesn’t deter the process of convicting violent, criminal rapists. I also suggest that the federal government mandate a sex education seminar and signed pledge for all outgoing public high school seniors: teach them what it means to rape, what it means to accuse someone of rape and what the consequences of rape and false accusations of rape result in, i.e. severe punishment under the law.

    For more information about the statistics I have provided, see http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2009/11/09/cbsnews_investigates/main5590118.shtml?tag=contentMain;contentBody.

    Let’s show the world that the United States of America takes women’s health and safety seriously and does not tolerate unlawful violations to women’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Let’s show the world that the U.S. teaches its teenagers to be decent, respectful citizens.

    Thank you.

  4. faemom said, on December 30, 2009 at 3:42 pm

    I don’t know how I missed this.

    First I wanted to say something my dad would say on the subject, but then I realized I never talked to my dad about any cases he worked on that included rape. I can tell you stuff about domestic violence, and he even shared his first SIDS case, but we never talked rape. Probably because my dad would see how close I am to being a victim, but then he did talk about the SIDS case, which gave me nightmares.

    The problem is that rape is very hard to get a convictions, since it’s hard to get a conviction, many DAs don’t want to do it. If the DAs are going to prosecute, then the higher ups won’t want to spend money on a case that will not have a resolve. IT is a societal problem. Most states rape laws are weak. In most people’s minds, she wanted it if she was drinking, wearing too short of skirt, going to his place late at night, if she flirted. DAs hardly ever put the victim on the stand because it’s easy to make her/him unsympathetic. Every time it makes national news about some woman lying about rape makes it that much harder to get a conviction.

    I believe you’re very right about having better sex educational classes. I was lucky as my high school had a great one within its manditory health class. I still remember the teacher saying, “Boys, if she says yes and she’s been drinking, wait until the next time.” Now let’s get those other kits tested, shall we?

    • femspotter said, on December 30, 2009 at 5:27 pm

      The study did briefly touch on the subject of the nearly impossible conviction. It’s the follow-through on the rape kits that’s unsettling, like we don’t even try to get to the truth of the matter. Like you say, rape, as it exists “in most people’s minds,” is not punishable in those same minds. It’s the rape that is violence and damaging violence at that going through the cracks that makes me indignant. True, there are many things that women can do to aid in the prevention of rape, but that still leaves the women who fall helpless to it. You can’t always protect yourself from your dad or your uncle, for instance. And who saw that stalker coming on a dark and stormy night?

      Would you ask your Dad (a retired law enforcement professional) if he thinks that a rise in arrest rates – forget convictions – might impact young men at a local level, at least reinforcing that there are some consequences to rape/date rape?

  5. faemom said, on January 2, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    So I talked to my dad, and he didn’t believe he had enough information to comment. He never worked in sex crimes and only once in his thirty year career did he have to collect samples for a rape case. He had to deal with the suspect, and the investigation showed that the victim had lied. My dad didn’t want to deal with that. He did say that as a detective he would want all the evidence for his cases to be tested. When I asked him if it might be a budget issue, he thought it could be because departments have to cut somewhere. Unfortunately testing rape kits, especially from cases where the victim doesn’t cooperate or changes the story, is not a priority for some police departments. My dad did point out that rape is the most under reported crime. His figure was one in eight cases are reported. He also feels that a lot of the time the victim undermines her/his case by saying all she/he wants is an apology or says other things that makes the crime seem less harmful than it really is.

    Basically, fem, education is the key to stopping these crimes. We as a society have to teach (possibly in health class in high school) people to respect their bodies, other people’s bodies, sex, and the horrible crime that is rape.

  6. Valerie Neumann said, on January 2, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    Femspotter…Thank you for this post. My name is Valerie Neumann; I was featured as part of the CBS News Investigation. This is something I am very passionate about.
    I love the support!
    Thanks!
    Valerie

    • femspotter said, on January 2, 2010 at 8:37 pm

      Oh, Valerie, I am pleased to support you. Thank you for being a voice among so many who are silent. It takes tremendous courage to speak out. I wish you all the best!

    • femspotter said, on January 3, 2010 at 9:55 am

      I’m linking your blog on my blog roll. I wish I had a stronger network of readers but I’ve never been good at making online alliances. I write. I will do whatever I can to help you in your cause. :)

  7. Valerie Neumann said, on January 3, 2010 at 10:01 am

    This is awesome! Thanks Again! I am new at this as well.
    Valerie

    • femspotter said, on January 3, 2010 at 10:16 am

      I’m not a new blogger, but I haven’t gotten famous…yet! LOL

      http://www.hrw.kintera.org/rape-kits

      I urge everyone to go to this link on Valerie’s blog and send your Congressmen a letter about the Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act of 2009. I wasn’t aware of this act and I was glad to support something that’s already in play. This process literally takes less than one minute to complete.

  8. femspotter said, on January 12, 2010 at 11:55 am

    Another thing that’s happening is the repeat offender scenario. A sexual victims advocate is working toward therapeutic confinement after criminal sentencing has finished.

    http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/01/12/scotus.sex.offender.law/index.html

    Unfortunately, I’ve learned that New York City, while championing its total test rate on rape kits and its 70% arrest rate, let one slip by. It let an alleged rapist out on a plea bargain and he allegedly raped again, same M.O.

    http://www.1010wins.com/pages/6031821.php

    http://www.nydailynews.com/news/ny_crime/2010/01/06/2010-01-06_raperob_suspect_is_nabbed_for_new_years_day_attack.html

    • faemom said, on January 12, 2010 at 2:04 pm

      Two issues seem to loom here.

      First, it goes back to prosecuting rape. Without a stellar virginal, innocent victim, it’s hard to prosecute rape. If they go ahead with it, it means the state has cold hard physical evidence. We as a society must understand that rape is all about the no. We must teach our women to go as soon as possible to a hospital to report the rape. This is hard to do because of all the emotions that come up during rape.

      Second, how do we as society keep from having repeat offenders? I’ve read several articles on child sex crimes, and it has been proven that if these offenders live together, like in an apartment or house, they are much less likely to repeat again. Even if they live near a school or park. I haven’t seen any evidence on criminals who attack adults. How do we rehabilitate sexaul criminals? How can we tell which ones did it once and will never do it again from the ones that are so damaged that they are not to be trusted?

      • femspotter said, on January 12, 2010 at 7:33 pm

        In the first article, the activist is working toward psychiatric evaluations and hospital incarceration after a completed sex crime sentence. In the second case, the suspect was arrested on multiple charges and then allowed to get out on bail. I think that a multiple charge situation when rape is involved should automatically eliminate the prospect of getting out on bail. Why did they let him confess to one crime and get out because of said confession? Authorities aren’t answering this question, as far as I can tell. And in cases of gang rapes, when more than one person is involved, and witnesses corroborate the victim’s testimony, again bail should be denied. But you’re definitely right that the system is set up to punish SOME crime and not prevent it. That would be a “Minority Report” impossibility.

  9. faemom said, on January 13, 2010 at 2:23 pm

    I think the root of the problem over and over again is getting a conviction. My dad can tell you about cases that he worked his ass off to get the bad guy only to have the state let the guy plea deal on a lesser charge. I know rape is one of those crimes that there’s often a plea deal. Our society still believes on many levels that rape is the woman’s fault. The state doesn’t want to deal with the expense (in time, resources, and money) of a case they believe is going less in their favor. Hence why that jerk got to plea deal on theft but not rape. I totally agree that he shouldn’t have had bail, and hopefully they have enough evidence to lock this guy up for good.

    • femspotter said, on January 14, 2010 at 8:18 am

      I agree with you that convictions are difficult for many reasons and that deviant rapists who are likely to repeat cease to be a threat ONLY when they’re behind bars. But I support the backlog bill because I hope that it raises the arrest rate and sends a message to idiotic teenage boys that rape/date rape is taken seriously and is punishable. In a perfect world, people don’t rape other people because they value each other’s well-being; but for now, I’ll settle to the threat of imprisonment as a deterrent to the crime.

      In the Harlem double rape scenario, the alleged rapist was caught because he had his victim’s cell phone in his pocket. He pleaded guilty to charges of misdemeanor theft (of the phone) and the rape charge was dropped. That’s just disgusting!

  10. femspotter said, on January 22, 2010 at 8:54 am

    This is great!

    Dear (femspotter):

    Thank you for contacting me in support of H.R. 4114, the Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act of 2009. I appreciate hearing from you and I welcome the opportunity to respond.

    Like you, I believe that every person who has been a victim of rape deserves the best medical treatment and the best possible chance of justice. Every year, nearly 200,000 individuals report to the police that they have been raped. Almost all are asked to submit to the collection of DNA evidence from their bodies, which is then stored in a small package called a rape kit. However, there are currently thousands and thousands of kits that sit untested in police storage facilities while victims wait in vain for justice.

    That is why I am a proud cosponsor of H.R. 4114, the Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault Act of 2009, which was introduced by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) on November 19, 2009. If enacted, this legislation would help reduce the national backlog of over 180,000 untested rape kits currently on police shelves by creating incentives for jurisdictions to eliminate their rape kit backlogs, process their incoming rape kits in a timely manner, and publicly report their backlog numbers. The bill will also address several other factors that work to deny justice to victims of sexual assault – including the denial of free rape kits to survivors of sexual assault and the shortage of trained health professionals capable of administering rape kit exams. This legislation is currently pending before the House Committee on Judiciary. Please be assured that I will keep our shared support for improving the process of bringing rapists to justice very much in mind as Congress continues to consider this issue.

    Thank you again for contacting me. As your Representative in the United States Congress, it is a privilege and an honor to serve you and to act as your voice in Washington. Please feel free to contact me again with any other issue or matter that concerns you. You may also want to visit my website at http://www.house.gov/rothman where you can find out how I have voted on legislation, learn which bills I have introduced and cosponsored, and keep current with my latest Congressional activities and policy statements.

    Sincerely,

    Steve Rothman
    Member of Congress


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