More than two years after the General Assembly established a committee to recommend policies for handling rape kits and to increase access to justice for survivors, a new law mandates testing and a federal grant is expected to help test a backlog of thousands of kits.
“We’re hoping that, as an advocate, we can confidently tell a survivor that if she gets a rape kit, it will be handled well and used to investigate the sexual assault,” said Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA). “Prior to these actions, we couldn’t honestly say that would always happen.”
The new criteria for testing — a law change supported by the committee — applies to all kits in the possession of a Maryland law enforcement agency as of Jan. 1, including old kits for which no testing decisions were made, according to the annual report of the Maryland Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Policy and Funding Committee.
The new policy requires testing unless clear evidence disproves the assault allegation or if the facts alleged do not constitute a crime, the victim does not consent to testing, or the suspect has pleaded guilty to the offense and had DNA collected for a federal database. A $3.5 million Rape Kit Testing Grant Fund was established by the General Assembly to assist law enforcement agencies with the expected increase in costs associated with meeting the new criteria, the report said.
Bolstered by a separate, $2.6 million federal grant, Maryland is expected to begin testing its backlog of thousands of sexual assault evidence kits this year.
The committee identified 6,000 kits in the custody of 50 law enforcement agencies that have not been submitted for testing, according to the report. The inventory, funded by a portion of the state grant, is expected to conclude soon. Once the inventory is finalized, the Maryland Office of the Attorney General will begin certifying kits for testing at a rate of $1,000 each.
When testing begins, MCASA will begin providing victim services under the federal grant, including notification and advocacy services, according to the report. A proposed opt-in system will allow victims to make first contact through an information line or email and to outline their notification preferences. The notification protocol is currently in the proposal stage.
A portion of the federal grant funds is earmarked for the creation of a tracking system for evidence kits, a process now in the beginning stages.
Another law created a three-year pilot program to fund a full course of post-exposure prophylactic treatment to prevent HIV infection in rape survivors, according to the report. The program went into effect on Oct. 1, but some aspects are still “under consideration,” including where and how to dispense the medication, how to follow up with patients and how to collect data required by the law, according to the committee report.
“We are extremely concerned that the bill to provide HIV (prevention) for rape victims is implemented,” Jordan said.
Jordan said that while many policies are moving forward or are already in place, other issues need attention.
The committee report noted a shortage of forensic nurse examiners certified to give the sexual assault forensic exam, or SAFE, and said some SAFE programs — administered by some Maryland hospitals — have difficulty making the exams available.
“I think the primary gap in Maryland’s response to rape survivors is that we don’t have enough nurses,” Jordan said. “The reality is most women and men don’t understand that you have to go to a special hospital to get a rape kit.”
“We have to start addressing the availability of exams” in addition to testing the kits, Jordan said.
The committee also made a number of recommendations for follow-up care and outreach to victims following a sexual assault exam.
Programs that conduct the SAFE exams should have a policy in place for discharging patients and for a follow-up process, regardless of survivors’ apparent injury or decision to report to law enforcement, according to the report. Follow-ups can include medical assessment as well as referrals to advocacy services. The best time to follow up with a victim is between 24 and 48 hours after discharge, and the person’s safety should be considered when determining the timing and method of contact, the report said.
SAFE programs are also encouraged to help facilitate anonymous consultations with law enforcement or prosecutors to provide victims with additional information, according to the report.
The new law also requires law enforcement to work with victim services when possible and calls for the creation of an independent review process to examine decisions not to test a kit. In addition, it calls for timely testing and reporting on testing time frames.
“It’s a tremendous increase in workload both because of the testing efforts and also because of #MeToo and greater awareness of sexual assault,” Jordan said. “Now, we need to look at how to respond to the increased demand.”