Good Luck Even Getting a Rape Kit in Rural Areas

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Photo: Ann Hermes

You’ve likely heard about appalling rape-kit backlogs, but how about shortages in medical examiners? According to a new report from the Government Accountability Office, it’s pretty hard for some sexual-assault victims to get an exam in the first place.

In the six states studied — Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Oregon, and Wisconsin — there were not enough medical examiners to complete the number of sexual-assault forensic exams needed, and it was worse in rural areas. About half of all counties in Nebraska and Washington didn’t have a medical examiner to complete the rape kit (which involves collecting DNA evidence, documenting any injuries, performing STD testing, and offering emergency contraception). Examiners in other Wisconsin counties were typically available on an on-call basis. And only one Colorado hospital has MEs on staff 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Study author Katherine Iritani told the Washington Post: “If you’re in the mountains in the winter, and you’re told you have to go somewhere else, that can be a big barrier. Some victims never get tested.” She said that some Colorado victims have to drive an hour to get the exam.

Victims can get a rape kit without first reporting an assault to the police; some report it later while others never do. But for those who choose to pursue criminal charges, DNA evidence increases the likelihood of prosecution. Having to travel further than the nearest hospital after a traumatic event is insult to injury given that these exams are supposed to be conducted as soon as possible after an assault and victims aren’t supposed to bathe or use the bathroom beforehand.

Meanwhile, there’s that backlog of kits that do get collected. In September, the White House and Manhattan district attorney’s office announced a joint $79 million fund to analyze kits in 27 states and also cover auditing and training in forensic best practices. (It costs about $1,000 to test a single kit.)

Of course, it’s one thing to test every kit, but police need the resources (and inclination) to actually investigate each case after results come back. Seems like all of these variables could affect the persistent underreporting of rape.