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Slow Rape Kit Results Leave Victims Few Effective Places To Turn


Sexual assaults are now reported more often, but the Department of Justice says non-reporting still remains the rule. In fact, the DOJ says, only one in three victims reports the crime to police. Even fewer receive any social services. A new study finds that a lack of money and training often complicates the problem. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson has more.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: After Emma Wagner was assaulted by a stranger last year, her first reaction was to hunker down, afraid of what would happen next.

EMMA WAGNER: It was really hard to do the rape kit. And I didn't want to at first. My mom actually took me down to the hospital and said, you know, this is important to do, just in case I wanted to press charges.

JOHNSON: Wagner says hospital workers in Baltimore started taking pictures and examining her body for evidence.

WAGNER: I mean, I'd just been raped. You know, it's a horrible thing, and, you know, to be exposed again like that to a stranger, 12 hours after it happens, is kind of hard to handle.

JOHNSON: Just as difficult, Wagner says, were some words from a nurse in the ER.

WAGNER: You know, in passing the nurse said you seem like such a nice girl. And that might seem silly to remember but that stuck in my head, because, you know, just what you say to rape victims can be a trigger or can really stick with them even though she didn't mean anything by it. But, you know, it implies that, oh, well, why were you raped?

JOHNSON: A new study by the Urban Institute concludes the medical establishment and the justice system can do much more to help rape survivors gain access to medical care and get them the exams and other help they may need. Janine Zweig is a senior fellow at the institute.

JANINE ZWEIG: There is a large majority of sexual assault victims who are not seeking any kind of help once these assaults occur. So, the greater ability for police to be sensitive at the time of report and sexual assault nurse examiners to be available, since they're specially trained to work with victims, is a very important and critical issue to help restore these victims to wellness.

JOHNSON: Zweig's study is based on interviews with hundreds of police, prosecutors, and victims. She says access to exams can be difficult and frustrating, especially in rural areas, and for immigrants and Native Americans. Deputy U.S. Attorney General Jim Cole recently visited Gallaudet University for the deaf in Washington. There, a spokesman said, he learned deaf victims of sexual assault can sit for long stretches at the hospital, waiting for an interpreter to arrive. Zweig says many urban hospitals also lack nurses certified to perform the forensic exams.

ZWEIG: Victims may wait in the ER hours for that trained provider to come to the hospital to be able to administer the exam.

JOHNSON: That exam for forensic purposes is often referred to as a rape kit, but it also offers victims a way to connect to counseling and other services. The test results it produces are supposed to be available quickly. That doesn't always happen, as Brooke Bastianelli found after she was raped in Southern California.

BROOKE BASTIANELLI: Because of particular budget cuts, it took a very long time for my kit to be tested - it took over a year. And this was, even though I was a very active person - I kept calling and following up with my detectives and wanting to make sure that the results were coming.

JOHNSON: Bastianelli says at one point the detectives closed her case - before all the evidence was back from the rape kit. With the help of a social services group, she got the police to reopen the investigation. And frustrated by the delays, Bastianelli says, she made an unusual offer.

BASTIANELLI: I asked how much it was to test and, you know, they said around a thousand dollars. I said can I find a way to pay for it myself? And they said no, I've never heard of that.

JOHNSON: Police finally finished the tests and said they hadn't found enough evidence to prosecute.

BASTIANELLI: It's very scary and we have to create a place that's not only safe to come forward but to go through the whole process because it's long and it's hard and it's lonely.

JOHNSON: That's why Bastianelli says she agreed to take part in the new study and help others navigate through the difficult process. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.