Lawmakers hear about challenges victims, law enforcement face processing rape kits

Anthony and several lawmakers on the committee questioned why it’s easier to track an Amazon package than an important body of evidence such as a rape kit

By: - September 23, 2022 5:23 pm

After she was raped, all Sarah wanted to do was “take a scalding hot shower to burn the traces of his fingerprints from my skin,” she said, detailing her experience to a joint House and Senate hearing on Pennsylvania’s system for processing rape kits. 

“I didn’t. I needed a doctor,” she said, describing, in graphic detail, the traumatic process of completing a rape kit at the hospital. For safety reasons, Sarah asked lawmakers only to be identified by her first name.

Going to the hospital and having a rape kit done “was pointless,” Sarah told members of the House and Senate’s Democratic Policy committees. “It ended up meaning nothing. My detective and prosecutor would never even see the swabs. My rape kit was never processed and tested.”

Despite launching complaints under the Crime Victims Act, filing a right-to-know request with the county where she lived, and working with a victim advocate to help her track down the status of her rape kit, Sarah said she still doesn’t know where it is or what happened to the kit after it was collected at the hospital. 

“I have spent 686 days trying to find out my rape kit’s final resting place,” Sarah said. “The failure to test my rape kit haunted me. It was a constant reminder of how little my rape mattered to law enforcement, how unsafe I and other[s] were as my rapist moved about the world with impunity.” 

To prevent other kits from being lost and to help victims receive justice, Sarah told lawmakers that Pennsylvania needs a system for tracking the status of rape kits. 

“I’m here not just because my rape kit – containing literal pieces of me – was buried as I still lived, but because a tracking system is the only way to locate the mass graves of so many others for whom the system has failed,” Sarah said. 

At 19 years old, LaQuisha Anthony became pregnant as a result of her rape and received an abortion. She said the uncertainty of the situation made it even more difficult to process the already-traumatic event.

“There wasn’t much I was certain of and obtaining a rape kit became one the things that held more uncertainty especially because I didn’t have access to the knowledge of what happened next, I didn’t have access to track the very pieces of myself that would be collected and shipped away,” Anthony said. “For someone who was violated and had no control, having a sense of knowledge would have been a breath of fresh air.”

Anthony and several lawmakers on the committee questioned why it’s easier to track an Amazon package than an important body of evidence such as a rape kit. 

“We have access to food delivery through modes like Door Dash, Uber Eats, and other apps that give us step-by-step tracking of the preparation of our food, to when the driver picks up to when it’s delivered to our doorstep,” Anthony said. “We have access to shopping for all of our needs via online sites like Amazon where we can track our items from the time it was shipped until it arrives. We even can see or are told when it’s lost or delayed. 

The United States post office has even created a system where you receive a picture of the mail that will be delivered to your home and the day it should arrive,” Anthony continued. “Can you imagine that in 2022 that we don’t have the ability to track rape kits, especially when we know the history of backlogs that our great state once possessed?”

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The inability to track rape kits in Pennsylvania is “a problem,” state Sen. Katie Muth, D-Montgomery, said, adding that. “I can ship myself a box of paper clips on Amazon and track it.”

State Rep. Danielle Friel Otten, D-Chester, questioned law enforcement officials, saying it’s easier to go to Target and get a 23andMe DNA test and get results.

Debra A. Calhoun, scientific services division director for the Pennsylvania State Police, said the difference is that private labs can hire as many people as they need to do the work without funding caps that affect government-funded labs’ ability to hire more staff and adopt new systems for managing kits. 

“The health care facilities, law enforcement agencies, laboratories, and district attorneys within Pa. vary significantly in available resources for internet access, equipment, and personnel to manage accounts and enter data,” Calhoun testified.

The Pennsylvania State Police are currently studying areas of need to improve the commonwealth’s system for processing rape kits. 

“There are numerous end-users to consider, including nearly 300 health care facilities, 1000-plus law enforcement agencies, three approved government-funded forensic laboratories, and 67 district attorneys’ offices,” Calhoun said. “Approximately 2,000 sexual assault kits are submitted to the approved forensic laboratories annually.”

Calhoun also noted that “law enforcement agencies, including campus police and approved laboratories, reported 186 backlogged sexual assault kits awaiting testing at the end of 2021.” 

“Police departments are also in possession of 872 kits where the victim has not consented to having the kit tested, 523 kits where the victim is anonymous, and 118 kits where the assault occurred in an unknown jurisdiction,” Calhoun said. 

After hearing from victims and law enforcement experts, lawmakers agreed that “significant” barriers need to be addressed to modernize and streamline Pennsylvania’s rape kit processing system and allow victims to be included in the process.

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Cassie Miller
Cassie Miller

A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry.