Beyond the Backlog
The rape kit backlog presents a significant barrier to justice. It is just one way we need to improve our community response to sexual violence.
A Community's Response to A Victim
When a person is abused in anyway, it is often difficult to disclose. Victims may be concerned that they will be judged, that the person they tell won't believe them or will consider it their fault, that there is nothing that can be done, and they would rather forget it. One way we can make it easier for survivors to come forward is to ensure that the community around them is as supportive and knowledgeable as it needs to be.
The vision of the Joyful Heart Foundation is a community that: is empowered with knowledge, courage and compassion to help survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse heal mind, body and spirit; values and dedicates resources to individuals and families that have been impacted by these issues; and seeks to ignite and foster an open dialogue about how to collaboratively end the cycle of violence and abuse.
At Joyful Heart, we envision a community that is strong enough not to turn away from the epidemics of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse. We envision a community that says to a survivor, "We hear you. We believe you. We feel for you. You are not alone. And your healing is our priority."
Our commitment to creating such a community informs our advocacy. Even as we focus on the rape kit backlog, we support larger issues facing our country's response to survivors of sexual violence.
Training First Responders
For victims who report sexual violence, hospital staff is often the first responders that the survivor encounters. Extreme care is required in providing medial care to victims, and in the collection of rape kit DNA, both because the victim desperately needs compassion and expertise and because the role the evidence can play in prosecuting the crime. Yet in the United States, there is shortage of specially trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE's) in communities nationwide.
Although emergency room physicians and nurses are asked to fulfill both clinical and legal responsibilities in responding to a sexual assault, they typically have little or no training on the medical treatment of rape victims, or on how to conduct a forensic rape kit exam. It is noteworthy that national studies have shown that rape kits collected by Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners were not only more thorough and contained fewer errors, but that the corresponding rape cases were more likely to be prosecuted successfully.
Only 500 SANE programs exist across the country. Continued funding to those training programs is essential, as well as a commitment to create new programs. Hospitals need the opportunity and encouragement to send their medical professionals for SANE training, and trainees need the logistical and financial support to become SANE nurses.
We need increased federal and state funding for SANE programs. We also need hospital to support SANE programs.
This year, the Joyful Heart Foundation worked in partnership with the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and sexual assault advocates to educate medical professionals to ensure that they are trained and prepared before a sexual assault victim comes through the emergency room doors. Out of that collaboration came the instructional video, "Body of Evidence," which is showed during hospital staff trainings. It can be accessed here.
Sexual Assault Crisis Center Services
Rape Crisis Centers represent yet another aspect of the frontline response to rape victims, ensuring they get the legal, medical, and psychological support they need. These centers are used to working on shoestring budgets, but this most recent financial crisis has significantly reduced their ability to operate. In a recent survey of 644 rape crisis centers, 72% of the centers reported experiencing funding losses in the past year; 56% have been forced to reduce staff; and 66% have had to reduce their outreach, prevention education and public awareness efforts.
Perhaps most significantly, 25% of rape crisis centers have a waiting list for services. That means one in four victims is waiting for basic crisis services. We know that the words "crisis" and "wait" cannot co-exist. We also know that without services, victims are more likely to end up homeless, jobless, abusing substances, suffering from mental health issues—and attempting suicide.
The President's budget includes a request to increase the Sexual Assault Services Program funding in the Department of Justice's budget for their Office on Violence Against Women from $15 million to $30 million. These funds can help significantly in addressing the urgent need for services—and seizing the opportunity to change lives, in many cases even to save them.