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A sexual assault evidence collection kit, sexual assault forensic evidence (SAFE) kit, Sexual offense evidence collection (SOEC) kit or Physical Evidence Recovery Kit (PERK) kit, is a set of items used by medical personnel for gathering and preserving physical evidence following an allegation of sexual assault which can be used in rape investigation. The kit was developed by Louis R. Vitullo and was for years referred to as the Vitullo kit. It is colloquially referred to as a rape kit. The term applies also to the collected evidence for a specific case.
A rape kit consists of small boxes, microscope slides and plastic bags for collecting and storing evidence such as clothing fibers, hairs, saliva, semen or body fluid, which may help identify the assailant and provide evidence supporting prosecution in a criminal trial. The process of collecting the evidence for the kit takes hours.
As of May 2009, the federal Violence Against Women Act of 2005 went into effect, requiring state governments who wish to continue receiving federal funding to pay for "Jane Doe rape kits" or, "anonymous rape tests", which allows victims too traumatized to go to the police to undergo the procedure at hospitals, which will maintain the collected evidence in a sealed envelope identified only by a number, unless police access its contents upon the victim's decision to press charges. While the practice had been recommended by the Federal Bureau of Investigation since at least 1999, and was already followed at some health clinics, colleges and hospitals, and in the state of Massachusetts, many jurisdictions up until then refused to pay the estimated $800 cost of the rape examination without a police report filed by the victim.
In 2011, the National Institute of Justice published a report, “The Road Ahead: Unanalyzed Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases," providing an overview of deep problems nationwide and the contributing factors to ongoing bureaucratic difficulties. These backlogs and delays may lead to a lack of justice for victims, the report notes, and “in worst-case scenarios … lead to additional victimization by serial offenders or the incarceration of people wrongly convicted of a crime.” Findings include: 1) As an indicator of how widespread this problem has become, “18 percent of unsolved alleged sexual assaults that occurred from 2002 to 2007 contained forensic evidence that was still in police custody (not submitted to a crime lab for analysis)"; 2) One major challenge is that 43% of law enforcement agencies “do not have a computerized system for tracking forensic evidence, either in their inventory or after it is sent to the crime lab"; 3) On average, 50–60% of kits test positive for biological material that does not belong to the victim; 4) Survey responses indicated that there may be some misunderstanding of the value of biological evidence. 44% of the law enforcement agencies said that one of the reasons they did not send evidence to the lab was that a suspect had not been identified. 15% said that they did not submit evidence because “analysis had not been requested by a prosecutor.”
According to a 2009 report by Human Rights Watch, Los Angeles, California has the largest known rape kit backlog in the United States, with at least 12,669 languishing in storage facilities of the Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, and 47 independent police departments in Los Angeles County, and "smaller, but not inconsiderable" backlogs residing at police crime labs. These backlogs consist of both kits stored in evidence storage facilities, for which DNA analysis is not requested by investigating detectives, and those submitted for testing at crime lab facilities, but which have not been tested in a timely manner. Although authorities have struggled to address the backlog problem, their attempts have reportedly been hampered by funding issues and politics. As a consequence of these backlogs, assault survivors are often not informed of the status of their rape kit or their case.
Across Illinois, where law enforcement and prosecutors handle sex crimes differently, a police backlog of nearly 8,000 rape kits accumulated between 1995 and 2009, only 20% of which were tested. Effective September 1, 2010, The Illinois Senate's Sexual Assault Submissions Act (Senate Bill 3269) requires law enforcement agencies to submit all evidence collected by rape kits for laboratory analysis within 180 days after the effective date of October 15, 2010, with a written notice to the State Police. Illinois was the first state to adopt such a law, setting a precedent for other states to follow. As of January 1, 2011, the Illinois House of Representatives Bill 5976 addresses victims' confidentiality rights and the timely processing of rape kit evidence. Both bills passed the Illinois General Assembly unanimously, and were signed by Governor Pat Quinn.
In New York State, a rape kit is also known as Sexual Offense Evidence Collection (SOEC) kit. As of 1999, New York City in particular harbored nearly 17,000 untested rape kits, which were eventually eliminated with outside labs. In 2007, the city opened a $290 million forensic biology lab. According to Sarah Tofte of the Joyful Heart, an organization that provides support to survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, "Most jurisdictions allow for detective discretion in whether a rape kit is tested, but in New York City, the official policy is that every kit collected from a victim who reports a crime must be tested." Joyful Heart President and founder Mariska Hargitay, who stars as a sex crimes detective on the TV series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, founded the organization in 2004. According to Hargitay, who trained as a rape crisis advocate to prepare for that role, "Testing rape kits puts perpetrators on notice that they won't get away with their crimes. And it sends the crucial message to survivors that they and their cases matter."
In Texas, it is considered unnecessary to administer a rape kit after 72 hours following the attack, as it is considered unlikely for useful evidence to be collected, though other types of evidence may still documented during the medical examination, such as survivor statements, and visible injuries such as bruises, lacerations or bite marks, through visual inspection, photographs and transcription .
In Washington, D.C., prior to the Violence Against Women Act, which went into effect in 2009, rape kits, despite being standard issue in hospitals, have historically been difficult to obtain, according to an April 2009 report by Washington City Paper. According to the report, rape survivors historically waited up to 12 hours in D.C. emergency rooms while the OB-GYNs present would attend to more immediate emergencies, such as births, after which the invasive exam would be performed by inexperienced residents, who made poor witnesses at trial. The Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program was established in 2000 at Howard University Hospital in order to address this concerns, after a decade of attempts by Denise Snyder, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC), to find a major hospital willing to host the program, most of whom either cited economic concerns or declined to respond to her inquiries. After Howard adopted the program, victims encountered the problem of requiring police authorization before receiving a rape examination, which is attributed by Snyder to the desire to maintain low crime rates on the part of law enforcement agencies, which the Washington Paper depicted as unsympathetic to the plight of the rape victims profiled in their report. Detective Vincent Spriggs, of D.C.'s Sexual Assault Unit, cites instances of false or unconvincing rape accusations, and requests for rape kits by woman who wish to have pregnancy tests or the morning after pill administered, as an obstacle to more open use of the kits. In 2008, Howard University canceled the SANE program, after which it reopened under the supervision of the mayor’s office.
The problem of rape kit backlogs was employed as a significant plot point in "Behave", the September 29, 2010 episode of the television crime drama, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, which depicts a police sex crimes unit. In the episode, detectives investigate the case of a woman, played by Jennifer Love Hewitt, raped multiple times by the same man over the course of fifteen years, leading them to discover that the perpetrator has raped women all over the United States. The detectives attempt to contact the Special Victims Units in other cities, only to discover that most of them have never tested the majority of their collected rape kits.