A California County Allows Sexual Assault Victims to Perform Their Own Forensic Exams During the Pandemic

A sexual assault evidence collection kit at Rape Crisis Volunteers of Cumberland County in Fayetteville, N.C.

A sexual assault evidence collection kit at Rape Crisis Volunteers of Cumberland County in Fayetteville, N.C. Associated Press

 

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The at-home rape kits are a temporary measure meant to ensure that victims of sexual assault continue to report their experiences in a timely manner, county officials said.

Some sexual assault victims in Northern California are being allowed to collect evidence at home with video direction from a nurse, a temporary protocol put in place amid staff shortages and fears of infection during the coronavirus pandemic.

The policy was adopted last week by the sexual assault response team in Monterey County, several weeks after California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statewide shelter-in-place order. With most residents ordered to stay at home, and all but two of the county’s forensic nurses working on coronavirus response, the policy was necessary to allow victims of sexual assault to report crimes in a timely manner, said Monterey County Deputy District Attorney Lana Nassoura.

"The last thing we want is a victim not reporting the assault to law enforcement because they’re worried about getting sick, so we wanted to give them an option to be able to do that without those concerns,” Nassoura told the Associated Press.

The temporary policy does not apply to children or to victims of sexual assault who have been injured. Only victims who feel comfortable and are physically able to conduct their own forensic examination are allowed to do so, always with real-time video instruction from a nurse, Nassoura said.

In those cases, the county has come up with a procedure for a victim to conduct the self-exam. A police officer leaves a rape test kit—containing instructions, envelopes, a comb, materials for blood samples, swabs, and bags and paper sheets for evidence collection—outside of a victim’s residence, then waits in the patrol car. When the victim brings the kit inside, both the police officer and the victim join a video call with a forensic nurse and a victim advocate.

As with an in-person report of a sexual assault, the nurse interviews the victim and the police officer takes a statement. After that, the police officer and the advocate leave the call, leaving the nurse to walk the victim through the forensic exam. Once it’s completed, the victim seals the kit and places it outside, where the officer picks it up and takes it to a forensic lab. The victim then has the option to video conference with the advocate, who can offer counseling and additional resources.

The commercial marketing of so-called "do-it-yourself" rape kits has faced scrutiny in the past, including from North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel. Last summer, Nessel slammed a New York-based company for marketing the kits, saying they could discourage victims from reporting crimes to law enforcement and that evidence collected at home was unlikely to be admissible in court.

“Medical forensic examinations involve the taking of photographs, documentation of injuries, and an anatomically thorough investigation by a qualified professional in an appropriate setting,” Nessel wrote to the company in August. “While your website suggests the at-home kits will be admissible in court, we are skeptical about that proposition. Your speculation about such admissibility is a poor justification for sales of a product that seems destined to delay sexual assault victims from seeking prompt medical attention.”

Two victims in Monterey County have used at-home kits since the temporary order went in place, according to the AP. Nossoura said she was confident that the evidence collected in those exams would be admissible in court because the authorities involved—first the police officer, then the nurse, and then the police officer again—can verify the chain of custody and testify that the evidence was collected directly from the victim and was not tampered with or compromised.

“This isn’t a situation where someone goes to a pharmacy and picks up a kit, goes home and does it themselves and then drops it off at the police station,” she said.

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Kate Elizabeth Queram is a Staff Correspondent for Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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