The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

Examining a Social Injustice: Why Are Some Rape Kits Never Submitted to a Crime Laboratory?

Saturday, January 19, 2013: 4:30 PM
Nautilus 1 (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Debra Patterson, PhD, Assistant Professor, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
Rebecca Campbell, PhD, Professor, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI
Background: Sexual assault victims are often advised to seek post-assault medical care in order to have a forensic exam, which includes evidence collection (termed a “sexual assault kit” [SAK]).  After the exam, law enforcement personnel are supposed to submit the SAK to a crime laboratory for analysis.  However, recent media reports suggest that in many communities throughout the United States, thousands of SAKs are left untested. Few studies have examined the rate at which law enforcement submits SAKs to crime labs for analysis or the factors that may predict them to do so. Thus, the purpose of this exploratory study is twofold: a) to examine the percentage of SAKs law enforcement submits to crime labs; and b) to explore whether assault and law enforcement characteristics predict whether SAKs are submitted to a crime lab.

Method:  Adult sexual assault case records from a focal sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) program were included in this study if the victim reported to law enforcement and received a medical forensic exam (N=244). The dependent variable (SAK submission) was obtained by the state crime lab. Independent variables included victim age, ethnicity, alcohol or drug consumption, anogenital and physical injury, victim-offender relationship, if the victim was unconscious, and post-assault actions (bathing). For the independent variables, de-identified copies of SANE program records were obtained and coded by multiple coders. Coding was consistently monitored to maintain reliability of kappa >.80. Level of engagement between law enforcement and the SANE program, defined as an active relationship of ongoing case consultation and collaboration (e.g., cross-training), was also examined through key informant interviews.  Binary logistic regression was used to determine what factors predict SAK submission.

Results: This study found that only 58.6% of the SAKs were submitted to the crime lab. Kits were significantly as likely to be submitted when there were documented physical injuries compared to kits that did not have documented physical injuries. In addition, kits that were handled by a law enforcement agency that had a high level of engagement with the SANE program were significantly as likely to be submitted as law enforcement agencies with a low or medium level of engagement. Kits were significantly less likely to be submitted when victims cleaned themselves after the sexual assault.

Conclusions and Implications: This study has several practice implications for SAK submission. First, the decision to submit SAKs should be evaluated by multiple system personnel (e.g., supervisor, prosecutor, crime lab) instead of relying on a single investigator. Second, victims agree to have a medical forensic exam because they believe it will aid in holding the assailant accountable. Therefore, a victim may feel betrayed if the SAK is not submitted. To prevent this sense of betrayal, the medical forensic examiners, crime lab, and law enforcement should have a consistent protocol on the eligibility for the medical forensic exam and SAK submission. The authors will elaborate on these implications for research and practice.