Joyful Heart Foundation Releases First-of-its-Kind Study on Victim Notification as Part of Work to End the Rape Kit Backlog

"Navigating Notification" includes years of research to share best practices and lessons learned

For Immediate Release: April 7, 2016
Contact: Melissa Schwartz, media@endthebacklog.org

NEW YORK – Today, the Joyful Heart Foundation released Navigating Notification: A Guide to Re-engaging Sexual Assault Survivors Affected by the Untested Rape Kit Backlog. This groundbreaking report will help jurisdictions working to eliminate their backlogs of untested rape kits to create survivor-centered, trauma-informed policies and protocols for victim notification.

Right now, there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in police and crime lab storage facilities across the country. But testing is just the first step to comprehensive reform. Once the problem is acknowledged and the first kits are sent for testing, cities are left to grapple with the enormous task of finding a way to test all of the rape kits in their storage facilities, and figuring out how to investigate and prosecute these cases, re-engage survivors in the process and address any systemic failures that led to the creation of the problem in the first place.

Since 2010, Joyful Heart has made the elimination of the national rape kit backlog a top advocacy priority. In recent years, states and local jurisdictions have begun to process the untested rape kits in their police and crime lab storage facilities and to take steps toward eliminating their rape kit backlogs. As they process those kits, they are faced with the question of how to re-engage survivors whose cases are often years—sometimes decades—old in a manner that is not re-traumatizing, can enhance the probability that a survivor will engage with the criminal justice system, and will increase the likelihood that a survivor will access supportive services.

Given the lack of scholarly research examining and suggesting best practices for victim notification, Joyful Heart partnered with Dr. Courtney Ahrens of California State University at Long Beach to bring together the voices of more than 90 survivors and criminal justice, medical, academic, clinical and advocacy professionals to establish a set of best practice recommendations for victim notification.

“As the movement to end the rape kit backlog gains momentum, it is our goal that, through this research, we will keep the needs of survivors at the forefront of our shared mission to address this issue,” said Maile M. Zambuto, Chief Executive Officer of Joyful Heart. “This report fills a much-needed gap in information and guidance that will help jurisdictions re-engage survivors in a responsible way as they work to address their backlogs.”

Funded through the generous support of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, Navigating Notification—the culmination of more than three years of original research on this issue—will serve as a guide for jurisdictions to ensure that notification is conducted in a way that is compassionate, effective, empowering and that respects the privacy of survivors and the immense weight of their experiences.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., said: “Behind each and every untested rape kit is a woman or man who has experienced a traumatic, life-changing event. As thousands of backlogged rape kits are tested through the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office’s unprecedented initiative, law enforcement nationwide will uncover new DNA matches, face the challenging task of contacting survivors—many of whom may be unaware that their kits were never tested—and then bring them long-awaited justice by prosecuting those who committed these crimes. By using the victim-informed approaches to notification outlined in this study, our objective is to ensure that we do not further traumatize survivors when making that important call.”

“As both a survivor of sexual assault and of the rape kit backlog, I am proud to have participated with so many powerful voices for change in service of Navigating Notification," said Natasha Alexenko. "Being notified of the progress of my case after nearly 15 years of waiting for justice is a moment I will carry with me forever. Creating a standard to the practice of survivor notification is a watershed moment for so many of us. Reform is long overdue, and I hope this report helps to bring systemic change to the way survivors are treated in untested kit cases.”

For years, Joyful Heart has been a national leader in the effort to create funding opportunities for jurisdictions seeking to address their backlog of untested rape kits. With our help and for the first time in 2014, dedicated grant funding is available through the U.S. Department of Justice to provide communities across the country with resources to develop and implement comprehensive, multi-disciplinary rape kit reforms. President Obama and Congress have thus far approved $86 million for this unique program, with a current solicitation out now.

Funds from this program are available to: test backlogged kits in their police storage facilities that never made it to a crime lab; create multi-disciplinary teams to investigate and prosecute cases connected to the backlog; and address the need for victim notification and re-engagement with the criminal justice system. As jurisdictions continue to receive these much-needed funds, Navigating Notification will help guide their implementation of survivor-centered reforms and engagement.

For background and further information on the rape kit backlog, go to: ENDTHEBACKLOG.org.

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The mission of the Joyful Heart Foundation is to heal, educate and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, and to shed light into the darkness that surrounds these issues.

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