HBO Film sheds new light on un­tested rape kits

South Florida Times - - FRONT PAGE - By K. BAR­RETT BILALI Spe­cial to South Florida Times

FORT LAUD­ERDALE, Fla. - A HBO doc­u­men­tary which aired Mon­day night has drawn greater at­ten­tion to the na­tional cri­sis of un­tested rape kits.

“I Am Ev­i­dence” was pro­duced by Mariska Har­gi­tay who is bet­ter known as Lt. Olivia Ben­son on "Law & Or­der: Spe­cial Vic­tims Unit." The pop­u­lar TV se­ries high­lights cases of sex­ual as­sault, do­mes­tic abuse and child mo­lesta­tion.

Ac­cord­ing to the film’s web­site, the doc­u­men­tary “ex­poses the alarm­ing num­ber of un­tested rape kits in the United States through a char­ac­ter-driven nar­ra­tive, bring­ing much needed at­ten­tion to the dis­turb­ing pat­tern of how the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem has his­tor­i­cally treated sex­ual as­sault sur­vivors.”

Na­tion­wide, over 400,000 rape kits have not been tested.

Har­gi­tay teams up with real-life pros­e­cu­tor Kym Wor­thy of Wayne County, Michi­gan. Wor­thy has been a long­time ac­tivist in ad­dress­ing the nearly 11,000 rape test kits which were un­tested in Detroit. These kits were dis­cov­ered by one of Wor­thy’s as­sis­tants piled up in a stor­age fa­cil­ity used by the Detroit Po­lice De­part­ment. Many, if not the ma­jor­ity of these un­tested rape kits, in­volved African Amer­i­can women.

Wor­thy per­son­al­ized the dis­cov­ery of these un­tested rape kits. The 61-yearold African Amer­i­can woman was a vic­tim of sex­ual as­sault when she was a law stu­dent at Notre Dame Univer­sity.

So far, through the ef­forts of Wor­thy, 10,000 of the kits have been tested lead­ing to the ar­rest and con­vic­tion of 127 rapists. In ad­di­tion, 817 se­rial rapists have been iden­ti­fied and 1,947 cases are be­ing in­ves­ti­gated.

Wor­thy said she wants to in­spire view­ers of “I Am Ev­i­dence” to speak up and de­mand that leg­is­la­tors make a change.

Florida law­mak­ers have heard the cry for change.

A law was re­cently passed which man­dates that rape ev­i­dence be pro­cessed and com­pleted within 30 days of the al­leged crime, said Ni­cole Bishop, Di­rec­tor of Palm Beach County Vic­tim Ser­vices.

“This is one of the ar­eas in which Florida is ahead of the rest of the coun­try,” said Bishop. Florida is one of eight states which has writ­ten into law a timetable for com­plet­ing rape tests.

“Lo­cally we don’t have a big back­log. We have a lo­cal re­source for test­ing kits,” Bishop said. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Of­fice does the test­ing lo­cally. While other mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties de­pend upon the State crime lab to pro­vide the anal­y­sis.

In Broward County, the Nancy J. Cot­ter­man Cen­ter is the only cer­ti­fied 24-hour rape cri­sis and chil­dren’s ad­vo­cacy cen­ter. More than 4,000 vic­tims were coun­seled in 2017 by sex­ual as­sault pro­fes­sion­als as part of the first step to heal­ing the trauma of rape and mo­lesta­tion.

This month, the cen­ter is reach­ing out to the com­mu­nity in a “We Be­lieve You!” ad cam­paign to let lo­cal vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault know their voices will be heard.

“Our ap­proach is to re­as­sure the sex­ual as­sault vic­tim that it is never their fault, we un­der­stand and sup­port them, and they don’t have to suf­fer in si­lence,”said Miriam Firpo-Jimemez. Di­rec­tor of the Nancy J Cot­ter­man Cen­ter.

Back in 2016, over 13,400 test kits in Florida were sit­ting in po­lice stor­age units col­lect­ing dust. At the time, it was es­ti­mated that the test­ing of all rape kits could take as long as three years to com­plete at the cost of mil­lions to tax­pay­ers.

Florida At­tor­ney Gen­eral Pam Bondi was the first to se­cure an ini­tial $2.3 mil­lion dol­lars to test un­pro­cessed sex­ual as­sault kits. So far, over 6,000 rape kits have been tested as of Jan­uary of this year.

The re­sult of each test kit is in­put into the com­bined DNA in­dex sys­tem or CODIS. This na­tion­wide data­base as­sists po­lice de­part­ments in catch­ing se­rial rapists.

Some lit­tle known facts of sex­ual as­sault in­clude the fol­low­ing: • One in six women and one in 33 men will suf­fer at­tempted or com­pleted rape in their lives. • 82 per­cent of rapes in­volve a party known to the vic­tim. • 80 per­cent of vic­tims are un­der the age 30. • 68 per­cent of rapes go un­re­ported to law en­force­ment.

PHOTO COUR­TESY OF JOY­FUL HEART FOUN­DA­TION

Kym Wor­thy and Mariska Har­gi­tay hold hands sur­rounded by con­trib­u­tors to the HBO film "I Am Ev­i­dence."

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