New bill pushes rape kit testing deadlines

Photo Illustration by Dayne Francis | The Signal

Photo Illustration by Dayne Francis | The Signal
Photo Illustration by Dayne Francis | The Signal
Georgia State Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta thinks there’s a better place for rape kits awaiting results than stacked and forgotten in hospital storage rooms.

Sponsored by Holcomb, House Bill 827 (HB 827), or “Pursuing Justice for Rape Victims Act,” puts forth deadlines for hospitals to turn in rape kits to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) and laboratories for testing, in hopes of ending rape kits getting stacked inside hospitals. It also requires that the GBI submits a yearly report of how many rape kits were tested and how many are awaiting testing.

The bill states it’s the duty of law enforcement agencies to compile evidence gathered from the exams by Aug. 1. The bill requires GBI to turn in a report with all the tested exams as well as the numbers of untested ones pending.

Backed by a congregation of Republican and Democrat sponsors, the bill passed through the state House on Jan. 19 with a unanimous vote. According to Holcomb, it was supported by “law enforcement, victims’ rights groups, and care providers.”

A rape kit is made up of all the materials used to gather evidence during a forensic exam from a victim of sexual assault.These include swabs, blood test equipment, combs, bags, envelopes, and documentation forms for each. The exam includes samples from the cervical, rectal, and oral areas, as well as any other area of contact.

Procedural loopholes

When it comes to undergoing the forensic exam, rape victims may choose not to report the exam to law enforcement, leaving the results confidential. In that case they have up to one year to change their mind, while the results are still available.

If they choose to report the exam to law enforcement, rape kits are supposed to be handed over to labs for testing and the GBI for investigation.

But right now wait times for DNA results from the exams range anywhere between five to eight months, depending on the complexity of the case, according to GBI Deputy Director George Herrin.

Herrin said the bill comes in response to the lack of deadlines as to how long hospitals may hold on to the kits before submitting them to the GBI.
This lack of deadlines is what Holcomb sought to address when writing the bill, and he said there is a major issue of tests going overlooked in Georgia. And according to the GBI, there are over 4,000 untested cases from the past three decades.

“The laboratory has 1,050 kits for current investigations, and evidence of 4,457 cases [stored in the laboratory] from 1986-1997 which have not yet been tested using current DNA methods,” he said.

The laboratories receive funding for testing from the state, as well as federal DNA grants, and more recently a grant from the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, according to Herrin. However, he said there are still 1,450 rape kits that were not tested in 2015 which will no longer be able to use some of those grants.

For patients that wish to get law enforcement involved, HB 827 says that the individual responsible for performing the exam will be responsible for turning in the evidence to law enforcement in less than 96 hours. From there, police officials are responsible for handing it to the GBI within 30 days.

The bill only requires deadlines if the exams are reported, and law enforcement is involved. But Susan Schuenemann, a survivor and the executive director of the Piedmont Rape Crisis Center, said most women choose not to report.

“These women are in shock, unaware of the process and what do next, afraid to answer questions and in fear of their families and friends finding out,” she said. “The majority of women I’ve worked with chose not to report [rape cases].”

She said that, as a survivor, she often thought she did something to cause it, and she wasn’t prepared to take any action afterwards.

“The brain’s first response to trauma is to try and protect you,” she said, “and often times that means keeping the situation as secretive as possible.”

However, Schuenemann said that having the DNA evidence does not prove a sexual act was non-consensual, which brings it down to the victim versus the penetrator’s words.

Transmitted diseases

And victims who undergo a forensics exam never pay because it is more like “collecting evidence on the bodies of the people that were raped,” rather than a doctor’s medical exam, according to Schuenemann.

Schuenemann said, although she has not seen any victims who had contracted AIDS, she has seen multiple cases of sexually-transmitted illnesses.

According to research from Grady Hospital, half of Atlanta’s patients tested for HIV already had AIDS, WABE reported in March 2015.
But Herrin said the Crime Laboratory isn’t looking for diseases or other factors besides signs of DNA.

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