By Karlie Sanchez and Ricardo Brum
Editor’s note: Per Red Line Project’s principles and policies, the name of the sexual assault victim interviewed has been changed for this story.
Joanne was laying half-awake in a hospital bed in Lincoln, Nebraska, when the questions came rapid-fire from police.
“Were you assaulted?”
“Did you know who the perpetrators were?”
“Do you want to press charges against them?”
Joanne, 25, who now lives in Bolingbrook, Illinois, had been sexually assaulted a few hours earlier in 2020. Police had questions as Joanne found herself in a strange setting with the company of only a nurse.
“I felt supported,” she said, “but it wasn’t a warm welcome.”
The questions would be overwhelming for any sexual assault survivor, but they become even more difficult to answer for Joanne, who was surrounded by police, only minutes after regaining consciousness. It took 15 minutes to complete the questioning with the police, where she went over all of the events of the night as best as she could recall. She confirmed she wanted to follow through with prosecution and consented to a forensic exam, also known as a rape kit.
When people are sexually assaulted, they may choose to report it to the police and proceed with a forensic exam. The exam consists of having a doctor or nurse take a series of photographs of the victim’s body, while conducting an invasive and thorough examination for any DNA evidence left by the perpetrator.
This is collected into a sexual assault evidence kit, commonly known as a rape kit. These kits can serve as strong evidence in identifying and convicting the assailant, but only if they are properly and timely processed.
When Joanne underwent her forensic exam in Lincoln two years ago, she was told the approximate wait time was six to eight months, but the actual processing time for Joanne’s rape kit to get tested took a year-and-a-half.
In 2020, the Chicago Police Department reported that the expected wait time for a kit to be processed at a state lab is about 270 days. But survivors are told by detectives and advocates in the state to expect a wait time of as long as two years.
Reporter Ricardo Brum discusses the careful approach the reporters took on this sensitive story.
Abraham Martinez, a Criminal Justice Program Director at Generations College and a former correctional officer, said rape kits are crucial in building a sexual assault case, as “it is important that they are taken to the police right away. Rape kits should not take more than two weeks to be tested.”
“These people could be raping again, and those test kits are still in the process of being tested for years, that’s a shame,” said Abraham Martinez.
Also in 2020, at a January Illinois Senate Public Health Committee hearing, Illinois State Police Director Brendan Kelly stated that analyzing DNA evidence within six months was an achievable goal. Yet, the state still had survivors who underwent analysis in the previous year waiting for their kits’ results for over eight months.
Although the backlog persists, some improvements have been made. Prior to the enactment of the 2010 Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act on Sept. 1, 2010 in Illinois, 6,020 out of 7,494 of rape kits booked into evidence from 1995 to 2010 in 127 out of the state’s 267 jurisdictions had not been examined. The law requires law enforcement officials to track rape kit data and send every rape kit in police custody for lab testing within 10 days.
In order to fight against the backlog, the Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization focused on assisting survivors, has laid out six legislative pillars for states to implement to clear the backlog. See your state’s standing below:
Joanne’s experience was a common one for sexual assault survivors: A confusing wakeup, a strange setting with the company of only a nurse before officers are rushed in for questioning, bloodied clothes nearby as the victims try to make sense of what happened. That’s followed by an hour-long exam and months of waiting for a response on the rape kit from the state.
After waking up, the only familiar face she saw was her mom’s, who was asked to step out of the room as soon as Joanne was up, before any chance of interaction between the two. Within minutes, the nurse approached her to confirm the sexual assault, and to inform Joanne the police were there to take her statement and ask some questions before she was able to talk to her mom.
“Then he [the police officer] came in, introduced himself, started going down his list of questions, and then I started crying,” she said.
While Joanne was set on reporting her rape, that is not the case for the majority of sexual assault survivors. Only 31% of sexual assaults are reported to the police, and out of those, only 5% lead to arrest, according to RAINN.
While most police districts in Cook County reported a similar level of criminal sexual assault in the first trimester of 2022 as they did in the first trimester of 2021, there are some noteworthy exceptions.Districts 2, 5, 8 and 19, covering South and Central Chicago, saw significant decreases of at least 29% on criminal sexual assaults, with particular attention to be paid to District 5, covering Roseland, Pullman, West Pullman and Riverdale, which saw a 67% decrease, with case numbers dropping from 21 to seven.
Meanwhile, Districts 10, 17, 18, 20, located on the North Side, and District 22, located West of the South side, all saw an increase in criminal sexual assaults of at least 50%. District 18 in particular, covering Lincoln Park and the Near North Side, saw an alarming increase of 129%, going from 24 reported sexual assaults in the first trimester of 2021, to 55 in 2022.
Martinez has worked at Cook County Jail for nine years, and for his last five years he was in charge of the lineups on a unit called SORT (Special Operations Response Team). From there he became a police officer for five years and worked as an officer at the University of Chicago, and lastly he became a deputy chief for a suburban department.
“If the chain of custody is not followed correctly, that evidence could be lost and you could lose your case,” Martinez said.
In 2007, Harvey Police Department had a raid by the Cook County sheriff’s office where they uncovered 200 rape kits. When Martinez was a deputy chief in Dolton, he was asked to assist another agency, Harvey Police Department where he found over 52 rape kits in a refrigerator that was in their evidence room.
Getting rape kits tested has shown that it is important not only for the survivors, but it is important they are tested in order for their results to come back in a timely manner and law enforcement can proceed with their case and find the person who committed the rape.
In 2010, #Endthebacklog created an initiative with the Joyful Heart Foundation, with a goal to eliminate all of the backlog in the United States and to prevent it from happening again.
The Joyful Heart Foundation has worked to keep the narrative on rape kit testing through public awareness, allowing different communities to engage as well as government officials and state officials, and advocating for rape kit testing reform.
In 2015, the Accountability Project issued open records request in order to bring light to untested rape kits in Urbana, Champaign, Springfield and Chicago. In 2016, Illinois became the first state that enacted law S.B 2221, which required a statewide rape kit and audit. This would ensure that all rape kits are being reported right away, and processed.
Since 2016, Illinois has enacted six bills, in order to help support the research, development, and reform of untested rape kits. These bills also help support survivors in being able to shower at the hospital after completing their medical exam, and having a sexual assault advocate with them.
Senate Bills and House Bills passed in Illinois to Reform Backlog
Angie Gomez has worked with sexual assault survivors in different capacities for over 14 years. Sometimes she was the first person they told, other times when they’ve been interviewed by the police or after a police report has been filed.
“My experience when it comes to law enforcement working with sexual assault victims is not good,” Gomez said. “They need a lot of training, trauma informed training. I don’t think police should be interviewing sexual assault victims.”
Gomez said that certain components “from the way one is greeted at the hospital, the lighting, from how people are being spoken to, make the survivor feel supported, not judged and cared for. “
It is very important for a survivor to feel heard, seen and recognized for what they have been through. Through advocacy like Angie has done in her community, or initiatives and reform organizations like #Endthebacklog, it’s all a way for people to be informed, and take action.
“If there is a silver lining, it’s that there’s other people who I can talk to,” Joanne said. “They might not know what every single detail feels like, but they have been through similar events, and you know, there is power in that, in saying their story to people who are actually listening.”
How to Help
There is still much to be done on easing a survivor’s plight. If you, or anyone you know, needs support concerning sexual assault, the following resources are available:
- National Sexual Assault Hotline: National hotline, operated by RAINN, that serves people affected by sexual violence. It automatically routes the caller to their nearest sexual assault service provider. You can also search your local center here. Hotline: 800.656.HOPE
- National Sexual Violence Resource Center: This site offers a wide variety of information relating to sexual violence including a large legal resource library.
- National Organization for Victim Assistance: Founded in 1975, NOVA is the oldest national victim assistance organization of its type in the United States as the recognized leader in this noble cause.
- National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women: VAWnet, a project of the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence hosts a resource library home of thousands of materials on violence against women and related issues, with particular attention to its intersections with various forms of oppression.
- U.S. Department of Justice: National Sex Offender Public Website: NSOPW is the only U.S. government Website that links public state, territorial, and tribal sex offender registries from one national search site.
- The National Center for Victims of Crime: The mission of the National Center for Victims of Crime is to forge a national commitment to help victims of crime rebuild their lives. They are dedicated to serving individuals, families, and communities harmed by crime.
- National Street Harassment Hotline: Created by Stop Street Harassment, Defend Yourself, and operated by RAINN, the National Street Harassment Hotline is a resource for those affected by gender-based street harassment. Support is available in English and Spanish: call 855.897.5910 or chat online.