May 13, 2008 -- ELKTON, Md. (AP) - Starting next year across the country, rapevictims too afraid or too ashamed to go to police can undergo anemergency-room forensic rape exam, and the evidence gathered willbe kept on file in a sealed envelope in case they decide to presscharges.
The new federal requirement that states pay for "Jane Doe rapekits" is aimed at removing one of the biggest obstacles toprosecuting rape cases: Some women are so traumatized they don'tcome forward until it is too late to collect hair, semen or othersamples.
"Sometimes the issue of actually having to make a report topolice can be a barrier to victims, and this will allow thatbarrier to cease, to allow the victim to think about it beforedeciding whether to talk to police," said Carey Goryl, executivedirector of the International Association of Forensic Nurses.
The practice is already followed at some health clinics,colleges and hospitals around the country and by the state ofMassachusetts. But many other jurisdictions refuse to cover theestimated $800 cost of a forensic rape exam unless the victim filesa police report.
Beginning in 2009, states will have to pay for Jane Doe rapekits to continue receiving funding under the federal ViolenceAgainst Women Act, which provides tax dollars for women's sheltersand law enforcement training. States will decide how many locationswill offer anonymous rape exams and how long the evidence should bekept.
Emergency rooms typically use a "rape kit" to collect evidencefor use by police and prosecutors. It consists of microscopeslides, boxes and plastic bags for storing skin, hair, blood,saliva or semen gathered by a specially trained nurse. The victim'sinjuries are also photographed.
What makes a Jane Doe rape kit different is that it is sealedwith only a number on the outside of the envelope to identify thevictim. Police do not open the envelope unless the victim decidesto press charges.
The FBI has recommended such an option since at least 1999.
"The idea is to collect the evidence now, while it's stillthere," said Scott Berkowitz, president of the national Rape,Abuse and Incest National Network.
The new requirement applies only to adult victims. Hospitals anddoctors must still report incest or abuse involving children to thepolice.
In Cecil County, local authorities started offering Jane Doekits four years ago, after a rape victim recanted. Anne Bean,clinical director for a rape and sexual assault counseling programin Cecil County, said giving women the option of keeping police outof it until they are ready to press charges is crucial.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, 272,350 sexualassaults were reported in 2006. The same survey estimated that only41 percent of rapes and other sexual assaults are reported topolice.
"Many times, you have people who were drunk, maybe doing drugs,maybe they're underage, and you start talking about the police andthey get scared," Bean said. "So, sometimes it's not until longafter they're willing to report, at which point of course anyphysical evidence is gone."
Massachusetts officials had no immediate figures on how manyrape kits were collected anonymously there, or how many wereultimately opened.
In Allegany and Cecil counties in Maryland, evidence is kept atleast 90 days. So far, 13 women have submitted anonymous evidence,and none has returned to press charges.
Still, hospital and police officials credit an offer of Jane Doetesting with encouraging a reluctant victim in Cecil County toundergo an exam. During that process, she decided to report thecrime, and her attacker was successfully prosecuted.
"Just to let people know this option is out there is good, tosay, 'It's OK, you don't have to prosecute if you don't want to,"'said Kathleen, a rape victim in Pennsylvania who spoke on conditionher full name not be used.
Kathleen underwent an exam after being raped in Virginia in2004, but her rapist was never found or charged. Kathleen said shewasn't offered anonymous reporting, but she has met rape victims ingroup therapy who regret not going for an exam.
"They're embarrassed. They don't even go get tested for STDsbecause they're so embarrassed," Kathleen said.
At Union Hospital in Elkton, forensic nurse Chris Lenz said JaneDoe testing is not offered unless a medical professional fears thevictim will leave without the option.
"Of course we encourage reporting. That's what we would like.But when they're adamant they don't want to report - if we think,`She's going to walk out if she has to go through with this,' -that's when we offer it," Lenz said.
On the Net: International Association of Forensic Nurses: http://www.iafn.org Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network: http://www.rainn.org
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)