Update: Testing Backlogged Rape Kits in Illinois


Reality Check
Many advocates say victims are discouraged and disheartened by a system that still needs a lot of work. Currently, no system is in place for survivors to learn where they are in the process, besides checking in with the police detective who handled the initial complaint. Many rape advocates and leaders in sexual assault associations interviewed for this story consistently mentioned that the people they counseled had trouble following up and getting answers as to their case status.

“Many victims are still being told their case is suspended, pending the rape kit, and they never hear from a detective again,” says Sharmili Majmudar, executive director of Rape Victim Advocates, a non-profit rape crisis center in Chicago. “Even very proactive victims call and call, and don’t find out. If there was any way to have some sort of notification system of the status of the kit, it would be meaningful.”

“A lot of detectives won’t give you information if you don’t have the rape kit,” adds Neusa Gaytan, program director for Mujeres Latinas en Acción, an agency that offers a comprehensive array of social services, including sexual assault advocacy. “It’s frustrating, because if the person didn’t get arrested, the family could be in danger.”

“I’ve had people call about rape kits,” Ms. Hall says, “and I can’t tell them anything. I don’t know if [the person on the phone] is truly the victim or the suspect.” If she’s called to testify for a rape case, she can’t release information to anyone in order to remain unbiased and credible in court. “Everything has to remain strictly confidential to the client, the detectives who are investigating the case on behalf of agencies,” Ms. Hall says. As a result, “We can’t even acknowledge we have the case.”

Since rape kits only define the actual act, not consent, rape victim advocates consistently emphasize the criticality of having a police officer investigate a potential crime immediately after it’s committed, not months later, after a rape kit is processed.

Both Ms. Gaytan and Ms. Majmudar confirm that the turnaround time for processing a rape has improved since the legislation. According to Ms. Majmudar, it now averages three to four months, compared with the pre-legislation time of six to nine months, which could stretch into a year. Ms. Warner notes that the typical turnaround time for a preliminary report in Chicago is two months – if there’s evidence.

“There are expectations of survivors that it’s like CSI,” Ms. Warner says. “If the DNA is not there, it’s not there. We can’t get it somewhere else, which is why the rape kit is so important.”

Still, Ms. Majmudar points out that New York City – with a population of 8.1 million compared to Chicago’s 2.6 million in 2010 – processes rape kits in six weeks.

“Getting a conviction of a sexually violent crime is still near to impossible,” says Yesenia Romo, director of YWCA Metropolitan Chicago’s Sexual Violence and Support Services. “Even when victims are doing everything they’re supposed to do – going to hospital, having a rape kit and reporting the crime – when it comes to the actual process of getting it processed, they become very frustrated and in some cases give up hope. We still need to build up the trust in the justice system so that victims feel confident they aren’t just going through the motions by completing a rape kit.”

Many advocates also have concerns about the Illinois police truly turning in every rape kit, which Ms. Smith counters. “We’re confident all kits are being submitted,” she says, “but we need to do spot checking.”

In Illinois and the U.S., there’s no shortage of Jane Does like the now 25-year-old woman Mr. Dinizulu mentioned. He’s already represented “about five other rape cases,” besides the two he is currently handling. The second is a federal class-action lawsuit against the city of Harvey, Illinois, for failing to process 200 rape kits, stalling police action on open investigations and eroding valuable biological evidence.

The charge is led by a 22-year-old woman who says she was assaulted in May 2007, at age 17, by an acquaintance. It was only after the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office and the Illinois State Police conducted a raid in 2007 on the Harvey Police Department – after it failed to solve any of the nine homicides in 2005 – that the untested rape kits were discovered and the investigations of dozens of sexual assault crimes were reopened. “It seemed like they deliberately misplaced the rape kit so it wouldn’t be found,” Mr. Dinizulu says.

It was also discovered during that raid that Mr. Buchanan, whose DNA was obtained by the State’s Attorney’s office, matched evidence collected from one of the rediscovered rape kits. He is one of 14 defendants to have charges brought against them in 20 cases based on evidence in the recovered rape kits. And to this day, Mr. Dinizulu adds, 15 years after the system placed justice for this Jane Doe high upon a shelf and let her stepfather continue to abuse her, she “still calls him dad.

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About Dawn Reiss

Dawn Reiss is a Chicago-based, award-winning journalist who covered both trials of former Illinois Rod Blagojevich as well as other major events in the Midwest for Time magazine and Time.com. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Time Out Chicago, Chicago magazine, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, American Way, and more than 30 other national and regional outlets. For stories, she done everything from eating crickets in Cambodia to investigating the death of two sailors during the Race to Mackinaw last summer to interviewing the likes of Maya Angelou and Justin Bieber.