Anonymous submissions among reasons why rape kits go untested

Anonymous submissions among reasons why rape kits go untested
Source: WMBF News

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - A 16-year-old girl was walking to her friend’s house when a man forced her into a car and drove her to a wooded area, removed her clothes and raped her.

The sexual assault kit was never tested.

The magistrate reviewed the incident and “would not issue a warrant.” No charges were filed.

A woman was drinking in Pawleys Island. The next thing she remembered was waking up in her truck with her belt unbuckled, and bruises and scratches covering her body.

The sexual assault kit was never tested and the case was closed for “lack of evidence.”

A victim told police she was kidnapped at gunpoint and raped. Again, the sexual assault kit was never tested and after 10 days, the case was closed because the victim was “uncooperative.”

A woman offered a ride and was then raped. A female drugged and assaulted by an ex-boyfriend. A Georgetown County Detention Center inmate forced to perform oral sex. A student raped by a classmate she knew.

In each case, the sexual assault kit was never tested.

Each of these incidents were depicted in Georgetown County Sheriff's Office reports tied to those untested kits

The GCSO gave various reasons why 70 kits remain unprocessed in storage: the victim refused to cooperate, the case was unfounded, or the case was closed based on information gathered and reported anonymously.

They’re similar to the reasons multiple other departments gave for having untested rape kits in their possession.

Lt. Peter Cestare said when he started with the Horry County Police Department 16 years ago, there were around 50 kits that were untested for similar reasons.

“But my feeling at that point was, no, we need to send everything regardless of what the circumstances are, you know, let the kit determine where you proceed from there. If the kit comes back with nothing and we can't get ahold of the victim, then we've tried what we could do,” Cesare said.

This year, the HCPD reported having six untested kits.

Other police departments that have gone back and reviewed cases that turned cold found errors in initial investigations.

“I found personally in our department … most of our unfounded cases were improperly unfounded because we didn't really understand the definition of unfounded,” Lt. John Somerindyke, with the Fayetteville Police Department in North Carolina, said. “I would really highly suggest you take another look at all of your unfounded cases, cause I'd guarantee most of them really aren't unfounded.”

One of the main reasons an agency doesn’t test a rape kit is because it is labeled as anonymous.

Victims can receive a medical exam but choose not to report the assault to law enforcement under the Violence Against Women Act of 2005. These kits are kept at police departments without a name attached.

This option allows victims to receive medical care and gives them time to decide if they want to involve police.

Dr. Kathy Gill-Hopple is a registered sexual assault nurse examiner with the Medical University of South Carolina. She said she hears a variety of reasons why victims wish to remain anonymous.

“If you just look at what society does to victims who do come forward ... it’s not good. It’s difficult, it’s challenging,” she said. “You are expected to relay information about something that has been so traumatic and so personal, and let everybody judge you for it. But nobody’s judging the person who did the act. They just judge the victim. So why would they want to come forward?”

Anna, a sexual assault survivor, said when she went in for her examine, she was still accepting what had happened and wasn’t in a state of mind to report to police just yet.

From a law enforcement perspective, this option can be frustrating.

“You want to get that suspect off the street. You want to get that victim justice. But sometimes you just feel like you're really kind of beating your head against a wall to do it,” Cestare said.

He explained time is critical when it comes to collecting evidence and sometimes the sexual assault kit isn’t the only important piece of the puzzle.

“Anybody who's done any investigative work at all on these types of cases will tell you how frustrating it can be sometimes,” Cestare said. “You're trying to backtrack and find something that may have been there and it's not now, or it's been compromised.”

Many agencies told WMBF they destroy the kits after 365 days. This policy means the number of untested kits throughout South Carolina over the last five years could be much higher if those kits not been destroyed.

“It is absolutely ridiculous that we have a timeframe on holding people accountable for rape and sexual violence,” said Isle Knecht, the director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national organization that focuses on improving sexual assault and domestic violence.

However, South Carolina does not have a time limit on when a sexual assault victim can press charges, so this practice of destroying kits after one year makes no sense to lawmakers.

“There’s so many potential ways that these can be used in the future that I can see absolutely no reason to destroy them after a year,” said S.C. State Rep. Mandy Powers Norrell, who was unaware of this practice.

Horry County Solicitor Jimmy Richardson also agrees that destruction can be problematic.

“Policies and procedures at various places are up to the individual agencies. I agree this could present problems on some cases,” Richardson said via email.

Data from the MUSC revealed a third of sexual assault kits were submitted anonymously since 2014.

Approximately 19 of the 254 victims who initially submitted their kits anonymously decided later to report to the police, according to MUSC’s data from 2015 to 2018.

Many agencies said it’s rare for victims to choose to report after a year, but for survivors this practice sends a negative message.

“To just kind of be discarded, it kind of seems like what happened to me was discarded, at least in the eyes of the city,” said Anna.

North Carolina also has no statute of limitations on a felony. Unlike S.C., the state’s Department of Public Safety has a warehouse set aside to hold kits for victims who are not ready to press charges.

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein said those kits are tested if a criminal report is filed.

Across the state and nation, policies vary on whether or not to test anonymous kits.

Knecht said some areas are beginning to allow anonymous kits to be tested, allowing officers to possibly track down serial rapists if a hit is made.

There are 200 anonymous kits waiting to be tested at S.C. State Law Enforcement Division, according to Maj. Todd Hughey, SLED’s laboratory director.

Hughey said that while SLED tests submitted kits, certain FBI standards prevent some of the DNA found to be uploaded into the federal criminal database known as CODIS.

This is part three of WMBF’s multi-part “Untested: The Rape Kit Crisis in the Carolinas.” Click here to go to the series’ official homepage.

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