According to the Justice Department's most recent National Crime Victimization Survey, only about 40% of sexual assaults are reported to police, though other nongovernmental studies indicate even lower rates of 10% to 20%. But among those who do report a rape, most are taken to a hospital to have a rape kit created. In this age of "CSI" and other forensic science TV series, rape victims believe that DNA and other evidence in their rape kits will help police and prosecutors find and punish their assailants. If only that were more true.
The process -- which can last more than four hours -- begins in a private interview room, separate from the hospital emergency room, where a counselor asks in detail what happened during the rape. The counselor is there throughout the subsequent examination.
If I were a rape victim, I would next be led into the exam room and asked to undress while standing on a large sheet of butcher paper so that anything that falls from my clothing or body that may provide links to a perpetrator or a crime scene (hairs and carpet or clothing fibers) can be carefully collected and placed in the rape kit.
I would be examined on a gynecological table with stirrups. My body would be scanned with an ultraviolet light to find otherwise undetectable semen or saliva that might contain the assailant's DNA.
(The nurse walking me through these steps tells me about a woman awakened in the middle of the night by an intruder. He sexually assaulted her for hours and licked and kissed her neck. Then he shoved her in the bathroom and told her to take a shower and douche. While she stood in the shower, she protected her neck so that evidence wasn't washed away.)
The nurse would check my entire body, swabbing every part the assailant touched. Then she would photograph physical injuries, which might include bruises, bite marks or burst blood vessels in the whites of my eyes from strangulation. A magnifying camera -- designed to be as noninvasive as possible -- would then record tears or other injuries to my mouth, vagina or anus.
With incredible care, the nurse would then collect fingernail scrapings, pubic-hair combings and urine and blood samples, placing each in separate envelopes. The swabs also would be labeled and sealed in containers with evidence tape. All this goes into a large white envelope -- the rape kit.
If I were a rape victim, the police officer on duty at the center might drive me home with the rape kit in the patrol car. I might imagine that the police were taking it directly to the crime lab to test the samples for DNA that could identify my assailant or provide evidence against an already identified suspect. In 2004, Californians voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 69, which expanded the number and types of offenders whose DNA goes into local, state and national databanks.
But the truth is, after all of that careful and meticulous collection, the rape kit may never be opened, much less tested.
The National Institute of Justice estimates that at least 400,000 rape kits are sitting untested in police stations and crime labs across the country. In the city of Los Angeles alone, more than 7,000 sit in refrigerated storage in a city warehouse facility and a trailer behind police headquarters. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department likely has its own backlog, but the sheriff has never disclosed its size.
Law enforcement officials blame a lack of resources -- for starters, they need more crime lab staff. But it's hard not to surmise that the problem is, in reality, a matter of priorities. Among L.A. City Council members, only Jack Weiss has insisted on budget increases to address the rape kit backlog. This year, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rejected the LAPD's funding request to hire more crime lab staff.
If I were a rape victim, I might never know whether my rape kit was opened. I might assume that silence from the police meant that the crime lab just didn't find any DNA, or none that identified my assailant. Although not every tested rape kit yields a database match, when New York City processed all its backlogged rape kits in 2003, the effort led to about 2,000 hits.
The morning I visited the Rape Treatment Center, three women came to report that they had been raped and to get care. They consented to the extensive, lengthy exam because they had entered into a pact with the police: We will submit to this collection of evidence, and you will submit our rape kits for testing.
I wish I hadn't known the likely fate of their rape kits -- to sit on a shelf, frozen and unexamined. If I were a rape victim, that news would be devastating.
Sarah Tofte is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.