Editor's Note: This post, which contains accounts of sexual assault, may not be suitable for younger listeners.
The phrase 'rape kit' is often used in the media and on television shows like "Law and Order: SVU" to refer to the process of collecting evidence of sexual assault. The term makes it sound like this neat and tidy little exam. However, the actual process is long and difficult. Your body is a crime scene; the nurse scraping every part for evidence of assault: DNA, bruises, fingerprints, hair, dirt.
Leah is a librarian here in Seattle. We’re not using her last name to protect her privacy. In April 2014, she was raped in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle. After the assault, she went to her local hospital, Swedish Ballard, to get help. However, at that particular hospital, there are no nurses trained to perform a sexual assault exam. So Leah had to go to Harborview Medical Center on Capitol Hill.
Victims in Washington state only have 120 hours after the assault to allow for the collection of evidence.
“When the exam started, they took all of my things and I watched them put my bloody underwear in a sack to examine it. They took swabs of every part of my body," Leah recalled. "They took photographs of every single part of my body. And the worst part is that at the end, they have to take a photograph of your face ... And that is the hardest part, knowing that there's this picture out there of my face at the worst moment of my life.”
All of the evidence can be stored at hospitals for up to six months but then it is off to law enforcement and state crime labs. Leah’s rape kit ultimately was tested. But it did not reveal DNA evidence of her assailant. And in fact, King County prosecutors decided not to press charges in her case; they said that they could not prove the sex was non-consensual.
Due to this experience, Leah now advocates for sexual assault survivors in Olympia and she’s seen some positive changes to how the system works. In 2015, the state Legislature passed a law requiring that all rape kits be tested at a state crime lab within 30 days.
“There are approximately 6,000 untested rape kits sitting in storage in Washington state. And because of this law, we will test them and I'm certain we will find serial rapists who will match and be convicted,” said Leah.
State representatives are working to fully fund this testing. As well as create cold case teams to follow up on results.
Because in the end, getting all this information does not necessarily mean more justice for survivors. Prosecutors and law enforcement still have the final say in carrying out investigations and legal action. But for Leah, more information means there’s less reason for society to look away.