Amid a growing chorus of appeals from victims of sexual assault, Congress today authorized $9 million to dust off the nation’s backlogged rape kits. Advocates and activists argue that dusting is a vital prerequisite to one day testing the kits and bringing assailants to justice. “Finally, police departments will be able to acquire the paper towels, cleaning spray, and feather dusters they need to combat our nation’s rape epidemic,” said Becca O’Connor, vice president for public policy at the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network. “Survivors of sexual assault should be heartened to know that soon their names will once again be visible on the boxes that contain their untested rape kits.”
When a sexual assault is reported, a doctor or nurse will photograph, swab, and conduct an examination of the victim’s body for DNA evidence left behind by the attacker. That evidence is collected and preserved in a sexual assault evidence kit, commonly referred to as a rape kit. Under most jurisdictions’ protocol, that rape kit is then placed in a box and put on a shelf in a dark room, where it’s left to sit for many, many years while authorities address more pressing issues like minority teens possessing marijuana. Though an exact number is impossible to determine, there are currently tens of thousands of untested rape kits collecting dust and spiderwebs in evidence lockers and crime storage facilities across the nation.
Detroit has one of the largest backlogs in the United States. Bereft of funding, officials there have had to resort to dusting boxes by hand, without facemasks. “You’ll go into a storage locker and wipe off an old rape kit box with your hand and kick up all this dust,” said James Craig, Detroit’s Chief of Police. “Those boxes are like time capsules, you never know what you might find in there. Often it’s a rape case from as far back as the nineties. Sometimes I see the woman’s name on the box and I remember questioning her and doubting her motives when I was new on the force. It can make you pretty nostalgic.”
“DNA testing technology has advanced considerably in the last twenty years, making it easier than ever to tie rapists to their crimes,” said O’Connor. “But dusting technology has lagged woefully behind. The hope is that this bill will change the equation.”
While the bill enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress, some critics have blamed rape victims themselves for the rape kit backlog, arguing that if women didn’t want the boxes that contain their rape kits to sit idly for years and get dusty, they shouldn’t have put themselves in a position to be raped in the first place. Advocates of the legislation dismiss this notion and are optimistic that, once dusted, many rape kits may be only mere years away from being tested.