Americans have recently learned that during the 1990s, Wasilla, Alaska,
then under the mayoralty of Sarah Palin, charged
victims of sexual assault for the rape kits used for evidence collection.
Attacks from progressives have been swift and harsh. There
is good reason to hunt down the facts about the rape kits. But the larger issue – of rape, sexual
assault and how we deal with violence against women in this country – has been
First the facts:
Last week new evidence arose revealing that under Palin’s
administration, Wasilla cut funds
that paid for the rape kits and shifted the burden onto the victims
themselves or their insurance companies
(kits generally cost between $500-$1200). Under Wasilla Police Chief Irl
Stambaugh, the town had included the cost of rape kits in the budget. But Palin
fired Stambaugh and replaced him with Charlie Fannon, who then took the money out of the budget – a budget Palin
approved. Fannon evidently did not have a problem with billing victims, though
he admitted that he would rather see the perpetrator pay for the rape kits
(without elaborating on how that realistically or successfully might occur).
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The town law did not change until Alaska state legislators
got wind of what was happening (in Wasilla and other small towns) and
introduced a bill, signed into law in 2000, making it illegal for "any law
enforcement agency to bill victims or victims insurance companies for the costs
of examinations that take place to collect evidence of a sexual assault or
determine if a sexual assault did occur."
Fannon immediately objected, stating in an article on
May 23, 2000 that "…the law will require the city and communities to come up
with more funds to cover the costs of the forensic exams…I just don’t want to
see any more burdens on the tax payer." Fannon did not explain why rape victims
should pay for their evidence collection kits while victims of burglary, for
example, would not.
Since the story broke, Sarah Palin has been taken to task by
progressives and rape victim advocates who are furious about the policy and
demanding an explanation as to why Palin not only allowed this practice under
her leadership, she oversaw its institution. Thus far, Palin’s response to the issue has been denial.
Said a spokesperson for her campaign:
"[Sarah Palin] does not believe, nor has she ever
believed, that rape victims should have to pay for an evidence-gathering
test…To suggest otherwise is a deliberate misrepresentation of her commitment
to supporting victims and bringing violent criminals to justice"
Though no one, as far as I’ve read, has been able to
successfully explain Wasilla’s detrimental policy, conservatives have fought
back, raising the fact that other states, towns and municipalities have charged
rape victims for their kits as well. The National Review Online called
out Illinois for "charging some rape victims." The practice of charging
rape victims for evidence collection still occurs more often around the country
than it should. US News & World Report recently reported on the problem:
In order to qualify for federal grants under the Violence
Against Women Act, states have to assume the full out-of-pocket costs for
forensic medical exams, as the rape kits are called. But according to a 2004
bulletin published by the NCVC [National Center for Victims of Crime], "[F]eedback from the field indicates
that sexual assault victims are still being billed." [emphasis mine]
And while a policy charging sexual assault victims for any
kind of evidence collection, treatment or care is heinous, there is a larger
issue at play. It’s easy to get caught up in the partisan anger – the volleying
of stories back and forth that "prove" the deceitful intent of one campaign or
another, the information that will surely reveal how evil one or another
candidate truly is. But the media has been missing the most important part of
To discuss the rape kit story without addressing what kinds
of policies, as a nation, we must put forward in order to address violence
against women – the causes of violence, the symptoms and how it can be curbed –
does nothing to further the dialogue, find solutions and heal some of our most
Bigger Questions About Rape and Sexual Violence in Alaska
According to Amnesty International, one out of every three
women in the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her
lifetime. In the United
States, a woman is raped every 6 minutes. In
global conflicts and wars, rape is widespread – a tool of war.
Instead of hashing and re-hashing a budget line under Sarah
Palin’s mayoralty, we need to put forward questions to be asked about and of
the candidates that will allow us to understand what they have done or will do,
concretely, to reduce violence against women, at home and abroad.
According to the National
Coalition Against Domestic Violence, Alaska’s
rape rate is 2.5 times the national average. Alaska also has the highest rate per capita
of men murdering women. Ninety percent of Alaskans would vote to increase
funding for victim service programs because, according to the coalition,
"programs are in dire need of more funding in order to serve the sheer volume
of victims." Seventy-five percent of Alaskans have been or know someone who has
been the victim of sexual assault or domestic violence. Alaska’s domestic violence shelters, sexual
assault services and programs for survivors have seen a relatively small
increase in funding. In 2008, the state
budget included an additional $300,000 in funding for victims services
programs. In 2009, according to Alaska’s Council
on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, Governor Palin’s budget
includes an increase in funds to help shelters offset the higher costs of fuel,
utilities and insurance.
But the extraordinary levels of violence against women in the
state of Alaska
and the underlying causes still require a much greater level of state-level
funding and oversight. According to the Alliance for Reproductive Justice, who
lobbied to address Alaska’s
rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, when explicitly asked to address
these issues in 2007, the Governor did not respond. The Alliance has this to say on their web site:
Governor Palin did not deliver and did not take a
leadership role on any of these issues. In fact, this year, when there was a 7
billion dollar state surplus she did not step up to the plate for the women and
children of Alaska…we
were truly disappointed with her lack of action on this critical public health
Most of Alaska’s
funding for sexual assault and violence against women programs comes from the federal
Pro-Active Policy Addressing Violence Against Women
responsible policy look like for dealing with violence against women?
one out of every seven adult women are the victims of forcible rape. This
number does not include women who have been the victims of attempted rape,
young women and men – including children – under the age of 18 years old, or
male victims of rape.
to the Crime Victims Compensation Act was passed in 2001, co-sponsored by
Sen. Barack Obama, to ensure that sexual assault victims (or victims
of other violent crimes) can be reimbursed
for expenses they may incur. In addition, Illinois has on the books the Sexual
Assault Emergency Treatment Act, which mandates reimbursement for (among other services) STI testing, emergency contraception
and rape kits if Illinoians don’t have public aid or private health insurance.
legislators considered sexual assault, rape, domestic violence and other
violent crimes where women make up the majority of the victims important
enough an issue to address it pro-actively and with conviction. Illinois has enacted a range of legislation that seeks to
address the multiple layers of responses needed to adequately address sexual
assault including the Violent Crimes Victime Assistance Program, The Sexual
Assault Nurse Examiner Program, and the Illinois Victims
And while it is true that only three out of every 10 rapes go
reported to law enforcement, Illinois
saw a decline in the
number of reported rapes and sexual assault from 1998 to 2006; from 6,146 in
1998 to 5,646 in 2006.
Candidates Take Stands on VAWA
The mother of all legislation dealing with violence against
women is the Violence
Against Women Act (VAWA), spearheaded by Sen. Joe Biden and after years of
lobbying, passed in 1994. VAWA was signed into law by President Bill Clinton,
renewed in 2000 and expanded in 2005 (signed by President George W. Bush).
VAWA’s intent is to improve the national response to
domestic violence and sexual assault. VAWA combines a series of federal
sanctions and initiatives as well as national, state, and local resources to
improve the response to crimes against women. These funds are committed to four
specific areas: prosecution, law enforcement, victim service, and courts.
Sen. Biden foresaw the need for such legislation to,
among many other things, infuse crucial funds into state systems to fight
violence against women. In fact, Alaska’s Council on
Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault relies on monies from this act. The act requires
federal fund grantees (states, Indian tribal governments or local governments)
to cover the costs associated with forensic medical exams (including rape kits) in
order to receive any VAWA funds. In order to receive these funds, therefore, Alaska state legislators
in 2000, under Democratic Governor Tony Knowles, instituted the state law banning
law enforcement departments from charging rape victims for their rape
Curiously, while Alaska
receives crucial funds from the VAWA act in order to administer its sexual
assault programs, Sen. John McCain voted against VAWA twice.
Sexual Violence Against Military Women, Native Women
There’s another layer of complexity to any story about the
candidates and sexual violence. John McCain’s military service to this country
is well known; his experience as a POW is a narrative he uses to explain how he
has and will prioritize our military should he become president.
It is worth asking, then, how a leader for whom a soldier’s
life is so important will deal with the rates of sexual assault against women
in the military. One in three women are sexually assaulted in the military.
Women serving in the U.S.
military are more
likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than killed by enemy fire. The situation is so dire Congress called a
hearing this summer specifically to examine sexual assault in the military.
What about Barack Obama? In the wake of the congressional
hearings, will he take a lead in examining what the Pentagon could and should
do to deal with this issue?
These are not the only stories of rape and violence against
women in this country. One in three Native women will
be raped in her lifetime. Many of those women live on reservations where it
is often the case that, because of bureaucratic confusion over just whose
domain they fall under – Bureau of Indian Affairs, state government or federal
government – perpetrators are rarely prosecuted.
What steps would Senators Obama and McCain take to address
the devastating "maze
of injustice" that Native women on reservations face when dealing with
protection from or prosecutions for rape and sexual assault?
These are the questions to which I want answers. These are
the central issues of a campaign, of an election to which Americans must pay
attention. If rape victims have been
charged for rape kits in municipalities, towns, cities and states around this
country, we deserve to know why. But let’s not sell ourselves short. We deserve
to know a lot more than that. The system is broken. Revealing a hole here and a
scratch there unearths some superficial problems. If women are going to decide
this election, we should do so based on the policies that impact women most,
and which candidates will actually help women outside of politics. We can do
this by asking the important questions:
Which set of candidates understands best how to remedy the
culture of violence perpetuated against women in this nation and globally?
Which set of candidates pro-actively creates policies that address the root
causes of rape and sexual assault? Which set of candidates do we trust to raise
the status of women in this country and work internationally to do the same?
Which set of candidates’ legislative and leadership records reveal genuine
attempts at fixing the problems their various constituents face when it comes
to rape, sexual assault and other forms of violence against women?
Asserting these questions in media coverage and exploring
the answers requires a deeper investigation. But the process will bring us
closer to what we really need to know about how our candidates prioritize
violence against women and the kinds of policies they would or wouldn’t
Rape kits are but one part of the story.