Help Wanted: Trained Rape Kit Examiners Across the U.S.
The mishandling of sexual assault evidence has been a hot topic since Full Frontal host Samantha Bee’s recent segment on the roughly 400,000 untested rape kits sitting in police evidence rooms across the United States. While tested kits are essential to ensuring justice for survivors, so is conducting the examination in the first place—which, as it turns out, few people are equipped to do.
Indeed, a new report, released Thursday by the Government Accountability Office, revealed a nationwide shortage of trained sexual assault forensic examiners.
“Any medical provider can perform an exam, but the research has shown better outcomes for victims and law enforcement when trained examiners perform these exams,” lead author Katherine M. Iritani said in an interview on the Government Accountability Office’s website.
Trained examiners have not only be proven to collect better evidence—which results in more perpetrators being prosecuted—but they also provide better physical and mental health care to victims.
In 2013, the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act funded several Department of Justice grant programs that could go toward training and salaries for rape kit examiners. However, some states and other eligible entities are not taking full advantage of these resources. The report suggested this was likely owing to difficulties obtaining the funding, as well as reluctance by hospitals and other organizations to conduct training seminars and pay examiners to be on call.
As a result, examiner training is happening haphazardly among the states. In 2013, two hundred twenty-seven organizations and medical facilities in 49 states reported training more than 6,000 examiners overall, but they aren’t equitably distributed. In more than half of the states, fewer than 100 examiners were trained.
Though the extent of the training also varies from state to state, examiners are expected to learn how to perform the exam, talk to survivors, and give courtroom testimony in a sexual assault case. However, those responsibilities, coupled with long hours and low pay, have resulted in a low retention rate for examiners in every state.
“People get burned out,” Iritani said. “The work can be physically and emotionally very demanding.”
In Wisconsin, for example, 540 examiners were trained over a two-year period, but because of difficulty with retention, the state was down to just 42 active examiners at the end of those two years. What’s more, nearly half the state’s counties lacked an examiner to begin with.
Wisconsin was one of six states—the others being Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Nebraska, and Oregon—in which the Government Accountability Office talked to state officials and found that the number of trained examiners did not meet the need for exams.
According to the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, roughly 285,000 individuals age 12 or older reported being sexually assaulted in 2014.
Although more examiners are needed, in many states, sexual assault training seminars are offered as infrequently as once a year. Iritani said her team has discussed possible solutions with state officials, including offering online training, opening clinical practice labs, and organizing community-based response teams in areas where there are fewer trained examiners.
Their work has the support of three Democratic members of Congress: Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota. On Thursday, they sent a joint letter to Sylvia Burwell, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, asking them to create a task force that would identify and address challenges related to training and retaining examiners. The letter also asked for the establishment of nationwide standards for training, evidence collection, and care for victims.
“It is critical to survivors’ recovery and their efforts to seek justice that the Department of Justice work closely in coordination with the Department of Health and Human Services to better meet survivors’ needs,” they wrote.