South Florida Sun Sentinel
By Andrew Boryga
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — When Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody issued a warning about at-home sexual assault kits, some may have been left scratching their head. Just what are these kits? Are they that pervasive to warrant such a public condemnation by the state?
So far, the kits have been promoted by at least two companies, MeToo Kit and PRESERVEkit, who say their products are a do-it-yourself way for sexual assault victims to collect an attacker’s DNA without going through the forensic examination and evidence collection normally done at a hospital.
Only PRESERVEkit actually put out a product earlier this year. It cost $29.95 and consisted, mostly, of a cotton swab, red tape, and a bag marked “evidence bag.” It has since been taken down on Amazon.
Nonetheless, Moody is only one of many attorney generals across the country to speak out against the products. Attorney generals from Michigan, New York and Oklahoma went further and issued cease-and-desist letters.
The public backlash may seem surprising for two companies. But talk to advocates for sexual assault victims, and they’ll say the simple idea — that victims can take evidence collection into their own hands — is detrimental to those who hope to heal from their experiences and see justice in court.”
Camille Cooper, vice president of public policy at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, said her organization opposes the kits because the evidence collection they promote is not nearly as thorough as a traditional rape kit. Also, victims who undergo traditional rape kits, done by trained nurses at a hospital, get access to crucial follow-up care, therapeutic treatment and testing for STDs — often free of charge.
Cooper said that while the DIY kits market themselves as giving sexual assault victims choices, they actually mislead victims and aid offenders. “If we were to allow survivors to use these kits, it would dramatically decrease the number of offenders that would be held accountable because the evidence would be inadmissible.”
Cooper said sexual assault victims who wish to report their attack should go to a hospital in the hours after an assault or be escorted there by a police officer. Once there, a trained nurse will “search their entire body as if it was a crime scene.”
This includes taking swabs for touch DNA, observing and cataloging marks on the mouth, neck or genitals, collecting pubic evidence, and taking a statement re-capping the incident. “It’s a pretty arduous process,” Cooper admitted.
However, Cooper said there is no real alternative for victims who want to make sure the evidence left behind from their attack remains credible. A simple swab of DNA without witnesses or documentation, she said, would be open to various attacks in court. “Any attorney worth their salt will be able to suppress it as evidence.”
Samuel Rabin, a Miami attorney who has worked as both a prosecutor and defense lawyer in sexual assault cases, agreed. “DNA by itself means nothing,” he said.
Rabin said that the physical examination done by a nurse is often more crucial than anything else because it helps to corroborate a victim’s story. For example, if they say their attacker choked them, a nurse can examine and photograph their neck, noting this. If the victims say they were penetrated, they can be examined for vaginal tears. This information, cataloged and collected by an objective third party, is critical in court, Rabin said.
Self-collected DNA, he said, would never make as strong of a case. “It’s a bad idea, bottom line.”
Seeking an Alternative
Madison Campbell, 23, founder of the MeToo Kit, sees things differently.
Campbell said she came up with the idea for her company in February to provide another alternative for victims of sexual assault who don’t wish to report their attack to authorities and enter themselves into a hospital. Campbell is a survivor of sexual assault herself who did not report her attack during her junior year of college, she said.
According to the Department of Justice, more than half of all victims of sexual assaults do not report their attack to police, including 77% of women.
Campbell said she didn’t report her attack because she was afraid she would not be believed, but also because she could not imagine undergoing the probing that the rape kit at the hospital would involve. “I didn’t want anyone touching my body afterward at all,” she said.
The idea for the MeToo Kit was born, Campbell said, because she wanted to find a tech solution for other victims like her who did not want to be forced to go through traditional, arduous routes of reporting.”
Campbell said she spent four months conducting research, speaking to survivors of sexual assault and industry professionals.
She also bought a traditional rape kit for herself, emptying it out on the floor of her apartment in New York City. She said that in addition to numerous items that would need to be collected, it included pages and pages of forms asking intimate questions about medical history and sexual history — details she believes could be used in court to discredit women.
Rabin said that while this is true in some circumstances, sexual history and mental history are not always relevant for individual cases.
Campbell said that in envisioning her product, she wanted to create something that would make the process of collecting DNA evidence easier and less intrusive. “We can give power back to survivors to say, ‘Hey, you control this process, you control your body,” she said.
Attorneys General Step In
However, after creating a website and looking for funding, her dreams hit a roadblock in late August when she received her first cease-and-desist letter from the Attorney General of Michigan. The letter claimed her marketing materials failed to explain the benefits of traditional rape kits, failed to address the health care needs of victims, and mislead victims into believing their evidence will be good enough for court — among other things.
Campbell said she was shocked by the letter, considering she didn’t even have a product yet. “Is it misleading to have an idea and put a website up?” she asked. “Plenty of companies do that, but they don’t get letters from attorney(s) general.”
Campbell said the language on her website, much of which has since been taken down, was meant mostly for investors and not consumers. She also said that her product was never advertised to replace traditional rape kits, only to provide victims with another option.
When it comes to the strength of the evidence, Campbell believes it is too early to judge whether a product like hers would be admissible in court since it has yet to be attempted.”
Jane Mason, a co-founder of PRESERVEkit, pointed to other examples of self-collected evidence that has been admissible in court in the past. Mason, who made public a lengthy response to a September cease-and-desist letter from the Attorney General of New York, mentioned Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress that was stained in a sex encounter with President Bill Clinton.
Campbell, who was in California at a tech accelerator looking for funding recently, said she was reading the recently released biography of Edward Snowden on her downtime. “I feel a lot like Snowden,” she said. Despite the public backlash against her company, she said she is continuing to work on her product and hopes to release it in February of 2020.
In defending her idea, Campbell pointed back to the large number of sexual assault victims who fail to report their attack, and in particular the 77% of women.
Cooper said that hiding behind that claim is disingenuous at best. “You can reverse that argument,” she said.
Like other advocates for victims of sexual assault, Cooper mentioned that it is already difficult for sexual assault victims, and in particular women, to come forward and report their attacks without immediately being discredited and scrutinized.
“For the few cases that are making their way through the system, do they want to make sure they get thrown out?”
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McClatchy-Tribune News Service
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