Getting A Rape Kit Is Hard. The Pandemic Has Only Made It Harder.

There are far fewer sexual assault evidence examinations during the coronavirus outbreak, experts say, thanks to a strained health system and fears of infection.
Illustration: Rebecca Zisser/HuffPost; Photo: Getty

Up until two weeks ago, the six sexual assault crisis centers Kim Hurst oversees in the Detroit area were as busy as ever ― conducting as many as 90 rape kit examinations a month. But then there was a sudden, and troublesome, drop-off in patients.

“Just because we’ve seen a decrease in numbers this past week doesn’t mean all of a sudden people have stopped raping or assaulting each other,” said Hurst, the executive director of Michigan’s Wayne County Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner’s (SAFE) Program, which processes rape kits ― the physical evidence collected off of a sexual assault survivor’s body. “Our biggest concern is that people are too scared to seek health care services right now.”

Rape kits, often compiled in hospital emergency rooms, are an integral part of sexual assault victims’ ability to press charges against their abuser. Any type of physician or nurse can conduct a rape kit exam, but the majority of them are performed by forensic nurses. The exams usually take three to four hours and can often only be done up to 72 hours after the assault. Once a kit is compiled, it’s sent to police to be tested for DNA, which can then be used to prosecute the perpetrator. (Although, the criminal justice system has a long history of never actually testing these kits.)

Forensic nurses, physician assistants and victims advocates from across the country told HuffPost they’ve seen a similar trend. As the coronavirus spreads, fewer and fewer sexual assault survivors are seeking rape kit examinations, perhaps out of fear of infection in a hospital emergency room. And some programs that once offered these essential rape kit exams outside of hospitals have shuttered as many of their nurses are being pulled into emergency rooms overflowing with critically ill coronavirus patients. Other centers simply don’t have enough personal protective equipment to safely continue their day-to-day operations.

This has made an already difficult process that much harder. Sexual assault survivors face a multitude of hurdles on a normal day: disclosing their assault, deciding whether to seek medical care or report to law enforcement, facing people who don’t believe their story, and dealing with the short- and long-term effects of trauma. And that’s without a global crisis raging in the background. Now, advocates worry the pandemic is only further discouraging survivors from coming forward.

“So many victims already don’t [get rape kits done], either because they know they don’t want to report to police or because they are turned off by the length and difficulty of the process,” Scott Berkowitz, president of the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, told HuffPost. “If it’s going to be an even more difficult and unpleasant experience, that’s likely to discourage some people.”

The coronavirus isn’t just making it harder for victims to seek help; it’s also made it more difficult for health care programs that serve survivors to do their jobs. Hurst said that the SAFE centers have reported a few COVID-19-positive patients who have come in to get a rape kit done. At least one, Hurst suspects, contracted the virus from their attacker.

A majority of centers and programs are still open, experts tell HuffPost, but victims face long wait times, shortened hours of service, and the possibility of decreased quality of care due to overwhelmed health care workers.

“Rape still happens during a pandemic, even if the circumstances and perpetrators vary.”

- Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy and advocacy for Futures Without Violence

Forensic nurses across the country have reported that many rape kits for victims of child sexual abuse have been postponed, Jen Pierce-Weeks, CEO of the International Association of Forensic Nurses, told HuffPost. Pierce-Weeks said this is primarily because most child sex abuse cases aren’t reported immediately. Since the abuse hasn’t happened in that 72-hour window, and if the child isn’t in any immediate danger, their kit is “temporarily suspended until the virus can calm down,” Pierce-Weeks said.

One of the bigger roadblocks for victims is that many hospitals have barred patients from bringing an advocate or friend with them when getting a rape kit exam. “There’s definitely going to be some patients who ― if they find out that their mom or their best friend or their sister or brother can’t come in with them ― they’re not going to go through with getting a rape kit,” Hurst said.

These hurdles only get worse for more marginalized populations. The majority of the community Hurst serves in the Detroit area is Black ― a population that is dying from the coronavirus at an increasingly disproportionate and alarming rate. Survivors for whom English is not their first language are having a hard time accessing care without a translator readily available, said Kiersten Stewart, director of public policy and advocacy for Futures Without Violence.

“Rape still happens during a pandemic, even if the circumstances and perpetrators vary,” Stewart said, adding a stark warning: “Remember, social isolation is the tool of the abuser.”

Incidences of violence often increase during emergency situations like the one currently gripping the globe, studies show. Since shelter-in-place orders were implemented in the last month, experts have seen an uptick in child sexual abuse and domestic violence reports. Many advocates caution that this increase barely scratches the surface, as most victims are unable to report or seek help when they’re stuck at home with their abuser.

Pierce-Weeks said she wouldn’t be surprised if there was an uptick in sexual assault reports once the coronavirus is contained. “As this virus begins to recede, and victims realize that it really is safe to access health care, we expect to see a surge in victims coming forward,” she said. “It’s going to look different in each community because the virus looks different in each community. But I suspect it will happen.”

All of the experts HuffPost spoke with agreed: Reported or not, sexual violence is likely to increase at an alarming rate as shelter-in-place orders continue. And the longer survivors are delayed access to vital support and resources, the longer it will take for them to get on a path toward healing.

“There’s no timeline on recovery and healing,” Riddhi Mukhopadhyay, director of the Sexual Violence Law Center, told HuffPost. “Hopefully there’s somebody safe in your life that you can disclose to right now, but if not, those of us who are doing this work will still be here ― pandemic or not.”

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