While many things have stopped during the coronavirus pandemic, unfortunately, sexual assault is not one of them. In order to protect survivors and the nurses who perform rape examinations, Northern California has issued a temporary order allowing rape kits to be collected by the survivor, at home, while a nurse walks them through the process via video call.
“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,” Monterey County Deputy District Attorney Lana Nassoura told the Associated Press. The measure is also designed to protect SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) nurses, who lack the proper protection to avoid exposure to COVID-19.
According to the Associated Press, a police officer drops the test outside the survivor’s front door and then goes to their patrol car, which is parked outside the home. Then the officer and a victim advocate join the SANE nurse and the assault survivor on a Zoom call, as would normally happen in the hospital room while the nurse interviewed the survivor and the officer took their statement. Then, the advocate and officer leave the call and the nurse walks the survivor through the exam. After it’s over, the survivor places the kit back outside their door and the officer takes it to be booked into evidence.
Advocates have seen increases in domestic violence and child abuse during the pandemic, and experts fear a similar spike in sexual violence cases — but are seeing a dramatic drop in the reporting of them. “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,” Kim Hurst, the executive director of Michigan’s Wayne County Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner’s (SAFE) Program, told HuffPost. “Our biggest concern is that people are too scared to seek health care services right now.”
According to Mother Jones, the at-home rape kits have been donated to Monterey County by a company called the Preserve Group, which is one of two DIY rape kit companies, both of which came under fire last year when they were accused of trying to profit off trauma. The other rape kit company, The MeTooKit Company, wrote to lobbyists in New Hampshire earlier this month, promoting its kit as a way to “save countless lives,” Mother Jones reports. Both the Preserve Group and MeTooKits have said they are not interested in selling their products and are offering to donate them.
Still, not everyone thinks at-home evidence collection is a good thing. Defense attorneys worry that allowing victims to conduct their own rape exams could result in cross-contamination and raise issues of reasonable doubt. “If you want to frame someone, it’s easy to get their DNA onto a swab where you do a sex assault kit, and say, ‘Oh, look, here’s their DNA,’” criminal defense attorney Mark Reichel told the AP. Since they first hit the market last year, there has been a push to ban DIY kits for reasons like this.
Nassoura, the Monterey County Deputy DA, agrees that this is an imperfect solution, but says it’s the best one they have right now, and they’ve done everything they can to ensure chain of custody remains unbroken, including a nurse watching while the survivor performs the exam and an officer ready to take the kit as soon as the exam is completed.
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