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Are Rape Testing Kits in Sexual Abuse Cases Reliable?

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Somebody is sexually assaulted in the U.S. every 96 seconds. The number of successful prosecutions that follow, while increasing, is still extremely low.  Unfortunately, many rapes go unreported.

One available tool that increases the likelihood of a sexual assault conviction is a so-called “rape testing kit” — but what is it, what happens during a test, how reliable are the results, and do they lead to justice?

What is a rape testing kit?

Rape testing kits (or “rape kits”) are more correctly called Sexual Assault Evidence Kits (SAEKs). They are used to collect evidence left behind after a sexual assault during a forensic examination.

A rape kit includes a container with a checklist, a collection of materials, and detailed instructions for the examiner.

The materials that you find in rape testing kits vary slightly between kits but generally include the following:

  • A large sheet of paper on which the victim undresses
  • Tubes and containers for blood/semen/urine/hair samples, etc.
  • Swabs for biological evidence collection
  • Comb for hair samples
  • Dental floss and wooden sticks for fingernail scrapings
  • Glass slides
  • Sterile water and saline solution
  • Envelopes, bags and containers to package evidence
  • Labels
  • Documentation forms

How do you prepare for a sexual assault forensic exam?

Rape victims are often in a state of shock after an assault. The thought of undergoing a lengthy examination in the immediate aftermath can be traumatic — but gathering evidence is critical and DNA evidence is best collected immediately after the incident took place.

The decision to take the exam is up to the victim but nobody has to face the ordeal alone. Support is available by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE) and/or contacting a sexual assault lawyer to provide legal support.

Before undergoing an examination, the victim should try to avoid activities that could spoil evidence, such as:

  • Bathing or showering (immediately after the test is better)
  • Using the restroom
  • Changing clothes (ideally, bring a change of clothes to the hospital)
  • Combing your hair
  • Cleaning up

A sexual assault victim can still undergo a forensic examination even after showering. However, the evidence may be considered less reliable and DNA evidence may only be analyzed by a crime lab if it is collected within 72 hours of the alleged crime.

Sexual assault crimes may also leave other types of evidence besides DNA that can be uncovered with the use of a rape testing kit.

What happens during a test for rape?

The examination could take four to six hours and will be conducted by a trained professional (doctor or nurse) who will be sensitive to the traumatic experience endured by the victim.

Evidence collected by the rape testing kit will be preserved and passed on to the police if the victim decides to report the rape.

The standard procedure for the test is as follows:

  • Medical attention: if there are injuries that require medical care, this is provided as the first step.
  • Medical and sexual history check: the victim’s medical history is checked, including current medications and health conditions. There will also be questions about sexual history (so that DNA evidence can be correctly connected to the perpetrator) and what happened during the assault.
  • Medical examination: this usually involves standing on a large sheet of paper while undressing, to catch falling hair or fiber evidence. There may be an internal examination of the mouth, vagina, and/or anus and swabs may be taken for saliva/blood/semen/urine/hair samples. Skin cell samples may also be taken, hair may be combed, and samples taken from beneath the fingernails.
  • Documentation and physical evidence collection: to document injuries, pictures will be taken and items of clothing may be collected. Physical evidence like hair or fibers from the perpetrator’s clothing may be packaged for later analysis.
  • Follow-up treatment: preventative treatment for STIs may be provided and, sometimes, a follow-up appointment with a medical professional is recommended.

A victim can decline some or all parts of this examination at any point.

Once complete, the evidence collected from the rape test kits is carefully packaged, labeled to prevent contamination, and sent to the appropriate lab for analysis.

How is DNA used to prosecute rape?

DNA is the unique material found in cells that determines a person’s characteristics. DNA evidence collected from a crime scene increases the likelihood of prosecution and may even help prevent the perpetrator from committing future crimes.

Collecting DNA has become a routine part of investigating a crime because, as long as it is collected and processed according to strict protocols and not contaminated, it is the most reliable way to identify a subject as the perpetrator of the crime in question.

For that reason, it carries great weight in court and can help bring a sense of justice to victims of sexual assaults.

Even if the perpetrator is not prosecuted, his or her DNA can be added to the national database and act as a deterrent for future assaults.

A forensic examination from a rape test kit is, therefore, a critical tool in prosecuting rape.

Does rape test kit evidence lead to a conviction?

After your test, you will need to decide whether to report the assault/rape.

For minors, the professional who performs the rape test may be obligated to report it to law enforcement under mandatory reporting laws. This is the case in Pennsylvania, where “mandated reporters” are certain adults who are legally required to report suspected child abuse if they have reasonable cause.

The evidence collected can be essential in securing a charge and conviction of the perpetrator — if it is collected in a timely and professional way. Hair, saliva, semen, or other DNA samples can be critical evidence in a case.

The test must, therefore, be performed by a trained professional who follows best practices to ensure accuracy when testing.

Some hospitals employ Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners (SAFEs) or Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs). Evidence collected by such professionals has a good success rate. However, not all facilities are geared up towards collecting DNA evidence. The National Sexual Assault Hotline will help you identify where to go for your test.

Another challenge with rape test kits is timely analysis of the results/evidence collected. Processing rape test kits takes time and money and some states have considerable backlogs to contend with.

Get help from our skilled and experienced sexual abuse injury attorneys

From our Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia offices, we serve clients across Pennsylvania and the United States.

If you or a loved one has been a victim of rape and needs advice, the child sexual abuse lawyers at Andreozzi & Foote offer a free and confidential consultation. Call us toll free at 866-311-8640 or contact us online today

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