Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: No urgency in testing rape kits amounts to no respect for victims

A sexual assault evidence kit is logged in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on April 2, 2015.
A sexual assault evidence kit is logged in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on April 2, 2015. AP

Where’s the urgency, the respect for rape victims?

On Tuesday afternoon, a day after the Florida Department of Law Enforcement released a report revealing the high number of rape-evidence kits that sit untested for DNA in police storage facilities, the police agency with the highest number of them remained mum.

Still working on trying to get information, a spokesman of the Miami-Dade County Police Department told the Miami Herald.

It must be difficult to find a way to explain the unexplainable: More than 3,700 rape kits were never processed for DNA testing in Miami-Dade County — the highest number in Florida. Of those, 2,243 were handled by Miami police.

It must be difficult to explain why the powerful crime-solving tool of DNA evidence in a crime as offensive to human dignity as sexual assault hasn’t been properly handled by those charged with the task.

Rapists are known to be repeat offenders.

The violent creep who raped someone within the jurisdiction of county police could be the same creep who raped another victim in a small municipality. But how would they know if there’s no DNA match to sound a timely alert?

The numbers bear repeating: One in four rape kits statewide that the FDLE believes should be tested — but weren’t — are in the custody of the City of Miami and Miami-Dade County police departments.

This key forensic evidence authorities have ignored is gathered immediately after a sexual assault — and victims will tell you that it can feel as degrading as a second rape to be poked, scraped, photographed and to have your life story exposed. Only the hope of catching a perpetrator, and sparing others, helps victims get through the hours-long process of collecting DNA evidence left behind.

But despite knowing the extent of the suffering, 13,435 rape kits sit untested in police storage facilities in the state of Florida — a number much higher than suspected when the victim advocacy group Joyful Heart Foundation brought the issue to light. Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain stored and untested.

DNA evidence “can identify an unknown assailant and confirm the presence of a known suspect,” the foundation explains in a website devoted to the issue. “It can affirm the survivor's account of the attack and discredit the suspect. It can connect the suspect to other crime scenes. It can exonerate the wrongly convicted or accused. To accomplish these things, however, rape kits must be tested.”

Yet police departments representing only 89 percent of Florida’s population would even answer the FDLE inquiry about theirs. In some quarters, apparently, a rape investigation is not seen as a matter that merits 100 percent compliance.

The FDLE investigation itself should’ve delved deeper. For starters, we should know the racial and ethnic makeup of the victims whose rape kits went untested. I’d be willing to bet the rape kits of poor, minority women are the ones sitting in storage closets.

And I wouldn’t use a euphemism to describe the mishandling of rape evidence.

It’s not a “backlog.” It’s negligence.

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