News Violence

Advocates Urge White House to Implement Rape Kit Law

Sofia Resnick

Following last week’s grant funding announcement to help eliminate backlogs of what are commonly known as “rape kits,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) issued a statement urging the administration to implement the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act.

The federal government and the New York District Attorney’s Office early this year secured funding for two national grant programs to help resolve the vast nationwide backlog of untested forensic evidence collected from sexual assault survivors.

Vice President Joe Biden, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. last week unveiled the 43 jurisdictions in 27 states that have been collectively awarded $79 million to help eliminate their backlogs of what are commonly known as “rape kits.”

But even as many sexual assault advocates and politicians have celebrated these grants, some have taken this opportunity to urge the Obama administration to implement a 2013 law that was intended to improve how police departments handle rape kits. One of the purposes of this law, called the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act, was to help law-enforcement agencies ascertain just how many rape kits are sitting, untested, in police storage units.

Following last week’s grant funding announcement, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), who sponsored the Senate version of the SAFER Act, issued a statement urging the administration to implement SAFER.

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“Today’s announcement is another positive step forward to ending the rape kit backlog in cities across Texas and the country, but more needs to be done to give sexual assault survivors the justice they deserve,” Cornyn said. “The Administration must take immediate steps to fully implement the bipartisan SAFER Act to ensure these kits don’t continue to languish on evidence room shelves.”

No one knows the true scope of the rape kit backlog. In July, USA Today and Gannett affiliates uncovered about 70,000 untested kits possessed by more than 800 law-enforcement agencies nationwide. Their investigation notes that they only received records from a fraction of the more than 18,000 police departments across the country; thus the actual amount of untested kits likely numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

The SAFER Act amended the Debbie Smith Act, a 2004 grant-authorizing bill that since 2004 has authorized more than $1 billion in grants to local police departments and crime labs for a variety of purposes related to testing DNA forensic evidence from all types of crimes.

The Debbie Smith Act has frequently been misrepresented by members of Congress as a rape kit backlog bill. However, as Rewire has reported, this funding stream was never dedicated exclusively for rape kit testing, and the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not been transparent about how much of this money has directly funded efforts to eliminate police departments’ rape kit backlogs.

While advocates working closely on this issue—such as the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)—have praised the Debbie Smith Act for providing resources to labs to expand their capacities, they believe that not enough of this money has gone toward efforts to end the nationwide rape kit backlog.

Among these critics is Debbie Smith, the bill’s namesake, who in 1989 was raped by a stranger in the woods behind her house in Williamsburg, Virginia. Smith waited six years for a resolution in her case, thanks to backlogs of sexual assault evidence kits. She has since become an advocate for funding to test rape kits, and for rape survivors.

Smith voiced her concern at a congressional subcommittee hearing Cornyn convened in May.

“I guess this is why they don’t name bills after people who are still alive, because we come around and we say what’s going on,” Smith told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution. “I would just like to see the money used more for what Congress meant it to be used for.”

Debbie Smith Act supporters expected the funding to help jurisdictions test their backlogged rape kits and to help crime labs build capacity to be able to keep pace with the ever-expansive use of forensic evidence in criminal investigations.

After that hearing, Smith told Rewire that she was frustrated that SAFER has not been implemented.

“The idea that a bill could have been enacted over two years ago, and the people who are supposed to be taking care of this and making sure money goes to this aren’t doing that, bothers me because it slows down the process of what we’re trying to do,” she said.

More recently, Smith said she is “absolutely thrilled” about the new grant-funding programs and said they represent “a huge step in the right direction toward eliminating the rape-kit backlog.” But she noted that “the journey must keep going.” Smith said she met with representatives from the DOJ’s National Institute of Justice (NIJ) last week and was told the agency is working on new protocols in an effort to begin implementing the SAFER Act.

The NIJ did not respond to a request for comment.

Part of SAFER’s goal was to address a need that some of the new rape kit funding announced last week is trying to fill.

The Debbie Smith grants have never fully addressed the broader scope of the rape kit backlog, which is that for years police departments have neglected to send rape kits to crime labs. The Debbie Smith funding primarily deals with backlogged DNA evidence that has been sent to a crime lab.

Congress passed SAFER to require that the Department of Justice award some of the Debbie Smith grant money to law enforcement agencies so that they could conduct audits on how many rape kits have been forgotten in police storage units.

Two years later, the DOJ has not implemented this law and has not responded to Rewire’s many inquiries as to when it intends to implement this law.

In many cases, researchers have found that police often decline to send rape kits to crime labs for testing because they do not believe the victim’s story or because they erroneously believe testing forensic evidence in so-called acquaintance or date-rape cases is not as important as testing evidence in so-called stranger rape cases, as Rewire has reported.

Hundreds of serial rapists have reportedly escaped jail time as a result.

This frustration over the Debbie Smith Act ultimately led advocates—among them the New York-based Joyful Heart Foundation—to lobby for new federal funding streams to deal with the rape kit backlog but also with the broader issues that collectively impede justice for sexual assault survivors.

Through the federal Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance has awarded $41 million in grants to help jurisdictions not only test backlogged kits, but also investigate and prosecute these cases, and address other victims’ needs, such as notifying and re-engaging them perhaps years after they reported the rape.

And through the Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination Grant Program, on which the Joyful Heart Foundation will advise, the New York District Attorney’s Office has awarded $38 million in grants for law enforcement agencies nationwide to test previously untested rape kits.

“This is the biggest investment to date to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits that we know are sitting on shelves across the United States,” Joyful Heart Foundation founder and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit star Mariska Hargitay said during last week’s press conference unveiling the awards. “Today marks a historic moment in the work to end that backlog.”

RAINN similarly celebrated the new funding last week, but stressed that the federal government need not forget the SAFER Act and its purpose.

“The Sexual Assault Kit Initiative and the Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination Grant Program will help us get closer to ensuring that all rape kits are tested for DNA, all victims receive answers, and more sexual predators are brought to justice,” RAINN Vice President for Public Policy Rebecca O’Connor said in a statement. “We also look forward to the Justice Department’s implementation of the SAFER Act, which President Obama signed into law more than two years ago. Passed by a bipartisan Congress, SAFER channels funding to one of the places it’s needed most: to inventorying and testing more rape kits and increasing transparency.”

News Human Rights

Lawsuit: Religious Groups Are Denying Abortion Care to Teen Refugees

Nicole Knight Shine

The suit accuses the federal government of paying millions to religious grantees that refuse to provide unaccompanied minors with legally required reproductive health services.

Two years ago, 17-year-old Rosa was raped as she fled north from her home country in Central America to the United States. Placed in a Catholic shelter in Florida, the teen learned she was pregnant, and told shelter officials that if she couldn’t end the pregnancy, she’d kill herself. She was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts. Upon her release, the facility in which she’d been originally placed rejected her because of her desire for an abortion, according to a federal lawsuit filed Friday. So did another. Both, reads the lawsuit, were federal contractors paid to care for unaccompanied minors like Rosa.

Rosa’s story is one in a series sketched out in a 16-page complaint brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The suit accuses the federal government of paying millions to religious grantees—including nearly $20 million over two years to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)—that refuse to provide unaccompanied minors with legally required reproductive health services, including contraception and abortion. The grantees are paid by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to house and care for young refugees.

The lawsuit, brought in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, amounts to a fresh test of the degree to which Catholic organizations and other faith-based groups can claim exemptions from federal laws and regulations on religious grounds.

“Religious liberties do not include the ability to impose your beliefs on a vulnerable population and deny them legal health care,” said Jennifer Chou, attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in a phone interview with Rewire. “The government is delegating responsibility … to these religiously affiliated organizations who are then not acting in the best interest of these young people.”

Mark Weber, a spokesperson for the HHS, which includes the ORR, told Rewire via email that the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.

Escaping turmoil and abuse in their home countries, young refugees—predominantly from Central America—are fleeing to the United States, with 33,726 arriving in 2015, down from 57,496 the year before. About one-third are girls. As many as eight in ten girls and women who cross the border are sexually assaulted; it is unknown how many arrive in need of abortion care.

The federal ORR places unaccompanied minors with organizations that are paid to offer temporary shelter and a range of services, including reproductive health care, while the youths’ applications for asylum are pending. But documents the ACLU obtained indicate that some groups are withholding that health care on religious grounds and rejecting youths who request abortion care.

The 1997 “Flores agreement” and ORR’s contracts with grantees, which the ACLU cites in its lawsuit, require referrals to “medical care providers who offer pregnant [unaccompanied immigrant minors] the opportunity to be provided information and counseling regarding prenatal care and delivery; infant care, foster care, or adoption; and pregnancy termination.”

In 2016, the federal government awarded 56 grants to 30 organizations to provide care to unaccompanied minors, including 11 that the ACLU claims impose religious restrictions on reproductive health care.

In one case, ORR officials struggled to find accommodations for 14-year-old Maria, who wanted to end her pregnancy, according to the complaint. An ORR official wrote, according to a document the ACLU obtained, that the agency would have liked to transfer Maria to Florida to be near family, but “both of the shelters in Florida are faith-based and will not take the child to have this procedure,” meaning an abortion.

In another, the complaint reads, 16-year-old Zoe was placed with Youth for Tomorrow, a faith-based shelter in Virginia, where she learned she was pregnant. She asked for abortion counseling, which was delayed nearly two weeks, the complaint says. Learning of her decision to end the pregnancy, Youth for Tomorrow asked to transfer Zoe elsewhere because of its abortion prohibition, even though Zoe said she was happy at the shelter.

For vulnerable youths, such transfers represent a form of “secondary trauma,” according to the ACLU’s Chou.

“These women have already endured so much,” she told Rewire. “The process of transferring these youths from shelter to shelter tears them away from their only existing support system in the U.S.”

Federal officials, according to the complaint, were aware that the religious grantees would withhold abortion referrals. In one case, the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston was awarded more than $8 million between 2013 and 2016, although it stated in its grant application that rape survivors wouldn’t be offered abortion care, but instead permitted to “process the trauma of the rape while also exploring the decision of whether to keep the baby or plan an adoption.”

The lawsuit also claims that a contract with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops included language requiring unaccompanied minors who were pregnant to be given information and counseling about pregnancy termination, but the ORR removed that language after the USCCB complained.

The USCCB did not respond to Rewire‘s request for comment. But in a letter last year to the ORR, the USCCB and five religious groups, including some ORR grantees, wrote they could not facilitate health-care services for unaccompanied minors that run contrary to their beliefs.

The lawsuit is the second the ACLU has filed recently against the federal government over religious privileges.

Last month, the ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act suit demanding that the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services release complaints against federally funded Catholic hospitals, where patients have reported being denied emergency medical care in violation of federal law.

In 2009, the ACLU also sued the federal government for allowing USCCB to impose religious restrictions on a taxpayer-funded reproductive health program for trafficking survivors. In 2012, a district court ruled in the ACLU’s favor, and the government appealed. The First Circuit Court of Appeal later dismissed the case as “moot” because the government did not renew USCCB’s contract.

News Politics

To Avoid Campus Sexual Assault, Kasich Suggests, Don’t Go to Parties With a Lot of Alcohol

Ally Boguhn

Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) told a young woman at a town hall event in New York who was worried about sexual violence on campus that she should avoid attending parties with excessive alcohol.

At a town hall event in New York, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) told a young woman who was worried about sexual violence on campus that she should avoid attending parties with excessive alcohol.

“Being that I am a young female college student, what are you going to do in office as president to help me feel safer and more secure regarding sexual violence, harassment, and rape?” the first-year student at St. Lawrence University asked the Republican presidential candidate on Friday.

Kasich replied that in Ohio, “we think that when you enroll you ought to absolutely know” how to report sexual harassment “or whatever” confidentially, access a rape kit, and “pursue justice after you’ve had some time to reflect on it all.” Adding that similar rules should be applied nationwide, he continued that he has “two 16-year-old daughters, and I don’t even like to think about it.”

“It’s sad, but it’s something that I have to worry about,” the student noted.

“I’d also give you one bit of advice. Don’t go to parties where there’s a lot of alcohol. OK? Don’t do that,” Kasich responded.

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After the town hall, Kasich’s campaign tweeted“Only one person is at fault in a sexual assault, and that’s the assailant.”

Victims needs [sic] to know we’re doing everything we can to have their backs, and that’s happening in Ohio under John Kasich’s leadership,” said another tweet from the campaign.

However, Kasich’s comments had already begun to garner criticism from those who felt he was placing the responsibility for stopping sexual violence on the victims.

“Let me say this simply, so that the governor can understand—rape victims are not responsible for rape. It’s on all of us—men and women—to address campus sexual assault,” Ohio Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirstin Alvanitakis said in a statementaccording to Cincinnati.com.

Others argued that Kasich’s statement was reflective of his past record on reproductive rights and women’s health.

“John Kasich’s plan for combating sexual assault as president is to blame women who go to parties. John Kasich’s pattern of dismissing the concerns of women is disturbing enough,” said Dawn Laguens, vice president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund (PPAF), in a statement. PPAF has already endorsed Clinton for the presidency. 

“As Governor, John Kasich has implemented policies that reflect his disregard for women, enacting 18 measures that restrict women’s access to reproductive health care while nearly half the abortion providers in his state closed their doors. He eliminated domestic violence prevention and a healthy moms and healthy babies program, simply because they were provided by Planned Parenthood. A John Kasich presidency would punish women. We can’t let his dangerous agenda into the White House,” continued Laguens.

As ThinkProgress’ Alice Ollstein explained, not only did Kasich’s so-called advice seem to blame the victim, it “also perpetuates the disproved myth that there is a direct link between alcohol consumption and rape. In fact, incidents of rape have been declining since 1979, while binge drinking has been steadily rising during the same time period. While alcohol is present in about half of all sexual assaults, it’s also present in about that same percentage of all violent crimes.” 

At least one in four undergraduate women are sexually assaulted during their time on campus, according to a September 2015 survey conducted by the Association of American Universities.

Kasich similarly pitched the merits of confidential reporting of campus sexual violence during a February town hall event hosted by CNN, where he promised, if elected, to “use a bully pulpit” to “speak out” on the topic and push “legislatures to begin to pay attention to these issues.”

The Ohio governor’s state budget for fiscal year 2016 also included $2 million to prevent and respond to campus sexual assault. In October, the Ohio Department of Higher Education launched an initiative to “prevent and better respond to incidents of sexual violence” on all of the state’s college campuses using the money allocated by the budget.

However, Kasich’s 2013 budget contained a “gag rule” provision blocking funding for rape crisis centers that provide information about abortion. Among the other anti-choice provisions included in the budget was a mandate on ultrasounds for abortions and the reallocation of Planned Parenthood funds to crisis pregnancy centers, which regularly lie to patients in order to persuade them not to have an abortion.