By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Vice President Joe Biden and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch joined Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance last Thursday to announce $38 million in grants that will be going to states across the country to eliminate the backlog of untested rape kits.
The announcement about the grant money, which came from an initiative by the Manhattan DA’s office, was made at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on First Avenue and East 26th Street last Thursday. There, Biden and Lynch also took the opportunity to announce the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance’s separate but complementary grant program that awards $41 million in federal funding for the testing of sexual assault kits, for a total of $80 million in funding to address the national rape kit backlog.
The initiative from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office awarded grants to 32 jurisdictions in 20 states to test an estimated 56,475 rape kits and the initiative from BJA, known as the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (“SAKI”) Grant Program, is expected to test about 13,500 sexual assault kits in 20 jurisdictions.
Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who was at the event to announce the funding, is the author of the Debbie Smith Act, which provides more than $100 million each year for DNA testing, and she has also authored the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act, which directed funds for audits of the rape kit backlog and increased resources for the analysis of untested rape kits.
“The rape kit backlog remains an enormous problem, and today we take a major step toward eliminating it for good,” she said. “The survivors of sexual assault deserve to see their attackers brought to justice, and that cannot happen if the critical, material evidence is sitting on a shelf.”
Although Maloney was on her way back to the capital by the time Biden came up to speak (“I’m glad someone is working in Washington,” he quipped), he made a point to acknowledge her advocacy of women’s issues and especially her support of the Violence Against Women Act, which the vice president initially introduced when he was a senator and which was passed in 1994.
“She has been an incredible ally,” he said. “Years ago when I introduced the Violence Against Women Act, virtually no group supported it at the time, including women’s groups, because they thought it would take focus off of things more important. She stepped up, along with half a dozen other women in Congress, the Senate and House, and made it a reality.”
Elected officials and advocates at the event emphasized the trauma that sexual assault victims endure just in knowing that their attacker has not been arrested. Both Vance and Biden noted that it can be doubly upsetting for a woman to go through, not only a sexual assault, but also the invasive gynecological exam required for the rape kit so soon after being violated, especially when the evidence is often not even used.
“She can’t take a shower like she so desperately wants to and can’t even change her clothes while she is still experiencing sexual trauma,” Vance said. “Imagine the shock they feel when it could be compared to other DNA samples while it’s actually on a shelf with hundreds of thousands of untested kits. Standing in the way is money, and this is the largest contribution to ending the backlog.”
Biden said that there are a significant number of women who never even report the crime because of this and he is hoping that ensuring that the kits will be tested will encourage more women to come forward.
“I hear men say, ‘Why don’t you just report it?’” said Biden. “Give me a break guys. How many of you would report it?”
The vice president also emphasized the importance of a national effort for DNA testing in solving crimes, noting that DNA evidence has been used to convict perpetrators responsible for other crimes in addition to rape, as well as multiple rapes across the country.
“You’re as likely to find the rapist from Times Square in Ogden, Utah as you are in Times Square,” he said. “You’re as likely to find him in Oregon or Mississippi as you are in Times Square. That’s the thing everybody has learned as we’ve moved along here and in turn you bring closure for the woman in New York.”
“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” actress Mariska Hargitay was also at the chief medical examiner’s office to show her support for the initiative. Hargitay is the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which provides support for survivors of sexual assault, child abuse and domestic violence, and she thanked the elected officials for taking steps to address the backlog of sexual assault kits.
“(The backlog) is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how we regard this crime in our country,” Hargitay said. “None of this could have been done without vision. We envision a society that is better, kinder and more just.”
Biden said that one of the main motivations for catching the people responsible for sexual assaults is to “set women free” from the violence they faced. He said that one of the most compelling pieces of testimony that he’s ever heard was when he originally introduced the Violence Against Women Act from Debbie Smith, for whom the Debbie Smith Act is named. A man broke into her house in 1989 and brutally raped her. She initially didn’t want to report it because she was afraid but her husband, who worked in law enforcement, walked her through the process. Her rape kit was not tested until six years after her sexual assault.
“She’d come home from work in daylight in the summer and fall and would be frozen in her driveway, afraid to get out and walk to her front door, six years later,” he said. “When her rape kit was finally tested and they found out that the guy was in jail, she said, ‘Two things happened. The first was, I knew everyone believed me now.’ And she looked at me and said ‘Senator, I can get out of my car.’”
Funding for the two newly announced initiatives has been awarded to crime and forensic labs in Arkansas, Arizona, Texas, West Virginia, Utah and Kentucky and to police departments in Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee and Nevada, as well as attorney general and district attorney’s offices in California, Oregon, North Dakota, Virginia and other agencies in Georgia, Ohio and Wisconsin.