Monday, October 31, 2016
Preserving Evidence, Empowering Survivors
You may have heard the news about a new Massachusetts law mandating storage of sexual assault evidence for 15 years. The sexual assault evidence system can be confusing, so let’s break down the process, what this new law means, and how it empowers survivors.
The basics of evidence collection for survivors 16 and older
After someone is sexually assaulted, they may visit a local emergency room for medical care and, if they choose and it is within a certain time frame, a sexual assault exam with a sexual assault evidence collection kit (SAECK, often called a “rape kit”) may be conducted. A sexual assault exam serves two goals: providing best immediate care for the survivor and collecting evidence that may be used to investigate or prosecute the crime.
In designated hospitals in Massachusetts, the exam is performed by a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE). If a survivor goes to a Boston-area hospital, they also have the opportunity to connect with a BARCC medical advocate. Our highly trained and supervised volunteer and staff advocates will meet survivors and their significant others at the hospital emergency room 24-7. The advocate’s purpose is to provide comfort to the survivor by sharing knowledge, reinforcing the control the survivor has, facilitating communication as needed, and ensuring the survivor has next steps and referrals.
A survivor may undergo the sexual assault exam and evidence collection without reporting the assault to law enforcement. The SAECK is stored by a crime lab and is only analyzed if the survivor reports to the police. Toxicology kit results are available to a survivor no matter whether they report.
What the new law does
Up until recently, unreported SAECKs were automatically stored for six months, and the survivor had the option to extend that storage every six months. The new Act Relative to Preservation of Evidence for Victims of Rape and Sexual Assault, signed into law by Governor Charlie Baker on October 19, extends the automatic storage of unreported SAECKs to 15 years, the statute of limitations for rape. The new law takes effect 90 days from signing.
“This is progressive legislation that takes the burden off of survivors, and that’s why BARCC supported this improvement," says Katia Santiago-Taylor, BARCC’s manager of system advocacy. Under this new legislation, survivors no longer have to decide every six months whether they want to extend storage or keep track of making that request; instead, they can take the time they need to decide whether to report the assault or not, with the assurance that their kit will be available as long as the statute of limitations. This legislation increases options for survivors and brings Massachusetts in line with several other states that have passed similar legislation.
"It will be important for the media and the public to understand that this is not creating a ‘backlog’ of untested kits, as has happened in other states," adds Katia. Unreported kits cannot be tested as evidence until a police report is filed.
As the law takes effect
As this new legislation is implemented, BARCC will be paying attention to how agencies involved in the process are addressing two key considerations: appropriate storage and effective tracking. BARCC works in collaboration with many of these agencies—including police, the SANE program, and crime labs—to ensure that policies and procedures are more survivor-centered. BARCC will continue to raise the voices of survivors as all of these changes go into effect. BARCC is also eager to see various parts of the new law clarified, such as whether unreported kits already in the system will be included.