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‘The biggest insult’

PSC SANE coordinator speaks on rape kit backlog

Nicola Smith (Enterprise photo — Amy Scattergood)

Paul Smith’s College’s Campus Advocacy Response Education Coordinator Nicola Smith said the process of administering a rape kit is at best very unpleasant and at worst re-traumatizing for no reason.

“A rape kit is a really horrible and invasive process, and it’s a lot to ask of a survivor,” Smith said.

Survivors here have to travel a long time to get at test. Adirondack Health runs Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake, and though the hospital has SANE-trained nurses, it does not have any who are currently certified. Currently, victims of sexual assault must travel to Malone, Plattsburgh, Albany or Burlington, Vermont, to receive the type of care administered by SANE-trained nurses.

Smith said sexual assault survivors are not allowed to pee, shower or change clothing between an assault and a test. Then they are prodded by strangers, she said, losing their bodily autonomy.

“And often they walk away with huge bills for that,” she added. “To have them go through all of that, and then to not test it? That’s almost the biggest insult you could give to someone.”

An audit conducted by the state comptroller office’s Division of State Government Accountability in May showed the only State Police laboratory that tests these kits for most of New York is going through an 88% backlog in testing of sexual assault kits statewide.

Data acquired using the Freedom of Information Law shows the backlog is holding up testing of five of the nine kits collected by the Saranac Lake and Lake Placid village police departments since the start of 2017 and for 36 of the 60 kits collected by State Police Troop B in the North Country since 2018.

“Most people find the rape kit process traumatic and re-traumatizing in and of itself,” Smith said. “And then to not test it? … There’s literal little pieces of them in there rotting away with their truth and their story. All of their chances of having their assault responded to by society are kind of dying along with that.”

Smith questions how necessary rape kits are in the first place, especially if they aren’t promptly acted upon.

“The rape kit itself, I don’t think it’s a good system itself,” she said. “And I think it also displays that our criminal justice system operates more out of rape myth than reality.”

She said kits can only be useful for collecting semen or assessing damage done to the victim. After a certain amount of time, they will not find anything. She said rapists sometimes wear condoms or force their victims to shower. Smith also said a common misconception is that rape is always “violent.”

She said rape is often committed by someone the victim knows, not “at gunpoint.” She also said “freezing” is one of the body’s natural subconscious reactions to sexual assault.

She said survivors should be believed, because statistics back up their credibility.

A 2010 study by researchers from the University of Massachusetts and Northeastern University found that between 2% and 10% of allegations of rape made to law enforcement are false. Other studies have produced similar percentages.

Yet because of all the obstacles, many survivors don’t press charges.

Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a statistical agency of the U.S. Department of Justice, shows as of 2016 around 77% of rapes were never reported to police.

BJS data also shows that even among those who do press charges, only around 35% of rape trials end in convictions.

“There is a huge discrepancy between people who are assaulted and what ends up ending in a conviction,” Smith said.

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