Let’s start by addressing the most basic complication regarding the treatment of sexual assault (SA) cases: The negative social stigma that many people continue to associate with sexual assault and rape. Through some form of media or communication, most of us have heard statistics similar to the following, “1/4 women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime, 1/6 boys will be sexually assaulted by the age of 18, 1/3 college women will be sexually assaulted within their undergraduate career…” and sadly, the list goes on. However, despite the staggering statistics and fairly common knowledge of at least a few facts, many sexual crisis center advocates assert that the stigma attached to SAs is one of the main reasons state and federal funding for sexual assault centers (SACs) is being cut. The societal perspective regarding SA, according to budget analysts and SAC directors, is the reason that the amount of private donations pales in comparison to other health and social service centers. This stigmatized mentality also contributes to the fact that the number of emergency calls into SACs is approximately double the number of SA cases reported to law enforcement. There are many myths and biases surroundings SA reports in the public and law enforcement, and due to these misconceptions, many victims do not choose to pursue a case in fear of these negative repercussions. In fact, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Justice, one of the vital issues that must be addressed in terms of how SA legal procedures are managed is how law enforcement officers are trained. The council noted that proper training and education for officers and the public can combat biases about rape and SA. The even sadder truth is that many people do not even know that the option to call a SAC after an attack is available, how to contact one because of a general lack of awareness, or if calling an SAC will help. These factors affect statistics and facts regarding sexual assaults and rape, which leads to even further misconceptions regarding the number of SA and rapes that occur in our country.
Rape Kits and Intervention: Effective or Inhibitive?
Aside from these inadequacies in law enforcement and in social perception, the system for rape kit access and testing is severely deficient. In case some of you need a reminder because you haven’t watched Law and Order in a while, a rape kit is intended for the collection and preservation of physical and DNA evidence. However, the current systems of rape kit evidence handling and response is in a grievous state of affairs. As of today, there are approximately four hundred thousand untested rape kits deferred to police warehouses and other storage facilities (cbsnews.com). To target solutions for this massive backlog, The U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Violence Against Women conducted a roundtable discussion involving sexual assault nurse examiners, law enforcement officers, forensic scientists, and victims of sexual violence. Each field had a different response to the issues confronting its specialists; the sexual assault nurse examiners noted a lack of consistency in the procedures for collection and preservation of evidence, a limited access to funds for services, and barriers within communication across SA fields. The law enforcement specialists involved cited that backlogs have grown in response to advances in DNA profiling, meaning “its application to a wider range of cases beyond sexual assault”. The officers also noted that the system has a lower priority for several “types” of rape, thus minimalizing the cases of thousands of victims, and that most task forces have limited resources to conduct the testing. However, the forensic scientists claimed that many employees within the field are unaware of the backlog severity, as the number of untested kits in police storage is not known by labs due to lack of communication channels. And lastly, but certainly most importantly, the victims of sexual violence present in the meeting discussed the need for evidence results while weighing decisions regarding criminal charges , along with the extreme stress that comes from the tedious task of accessing information pertaining their own bodies. Altogether, the task force identified many areas in need of improvement, including, but not limited to: open communication systems, increased funds, effective information management systems, proper SA education and training, and a victim centric approach to SA cases. Nonetheless, the progress on these goals is slow and complex due to the lack of public knowledge and budgetary allocations on both statewide and federal levels.
In Georgia, funding cuts have devastated the crisis centers and the victims of SA alike. The most detrimental problem is that most victims simply do not know how to access proper care. Some call centers in Georgia are unable to tell victims the vast amount of free resources available, and due to improper communication systems, call centers may tell the victim to go to a local hospital without clarifying which ones have RK testing available. The truth is, not all hospitals have sexual assault nurse examiners , but all are required to admit the victim and call the police even if rape kits and examinations are unavailable. A visit to a hospital for essentially nothing besides a $1,000 bill and an interrogation is not exactly helpful to anyone, and the possibility discourages many victims from seeking assistance after an attack. Standard law enforcement officers in Georgia (ones who have not been trained) commonly will tell that victim that without pressing changes, he or she will have to pay for the rape kit. While in fact, according to the Violence Against Women Act, it is illegal for a victim to pay for a rape kit. In other words, rape kit services are completely free at specialized centers, but hospital services are not free at all facilities.
Which brings us to various rights that many victims are unaware of: the access to pro-bono lawyers, the aid of free victim advocates for all police interactions, free counselors, and grant funds to cover any expenses related to an SA. The Gwinnett SAC stresses that privately funded services actually save taxpayers and the government money, as the specialized centers run much more efficiently than hospitals that do rape kits in terms of both money and time. Regrettably, Georgia continues to cut funds for SACs and rape kit testing efforts. In 2013, Governor Nathan Deal allocated around 6 million dollars to forensic DNA testing efforts. To put this number into perspective, approximately 95 million dollars were appropriated to Georgia universities solely for advertising and increasing enrollment (this figure does not include the 236 million dollar budget for improvements within the University System of Georgia). For progress to occur in rape kit analysis and victim support, more GA funding for sexual assault centers and community education are key. With millions of dollars cut annually for victims of sexual assault and domestic violence, advocacy centers are struggling to keep their doors open for the thousands of children, women, and men that need their services.
As discouraging as the facts may appear, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The nation and our state has the opportunity to improve countless lives through advocacy for funding, public education on local resources, law enforcement training, and eradication of the social stigma attached to rape and sexual assault. The issue of SA is not just a women’s issue; it is every citizen’s responsibility to ensure that our country treats all victims of physical/emotional trauma in an appropriate, equal, and respectful manner. So let’s cut out the SA and rape myths; slash the stigma of sexual assault; and speak up for every woman, man, and child that has suffered from a violation of his or her body and rights