Passing rape kit bill will restore faith with survivors

Denying a hearing for the Pursuing Justice for Rape Victims Bill (HB 827) is another way we silence victims of the most underreported crime. By doing so we are failing victims and we are participating in the trauma they endure.

As a survivor, I am your average story and statistic. I was raped in college by somebody I knew; and I did not report the crime. I am your one-in-four young women raped while in school. I am your 60 percent of unreported rapes. I am the 70 percent of acquaintance rape statistic.

I did not report my rape, as so many victims do not, for any number of reasons. I did not report because I was afraid people would not believe me. I did not report because I knew my assailant. I did not report because I was only 19 and was confused about what happened to me. I did not report because I felt judged when I visited my doctor for Plan B and STI testing. But more than any other reason, I did not report because I felt that nothing would happen if I did.

When victims decide to undergo rape kit testing, they experience a second round of trauma. Rape kit testing is invasive. In order to collect DNA evidence, victims must get tested within 72 hours of the sexual assault. For the best evidence, victims should not change their clothes, shower, bathe, or brush their hair. The exam, lasting four to six hours, is the most powerful tool used to bring justice to victims. The fact that this vital evidence, which puts victims through a rigorous and daunting process, remains left on the table is a clear failure of justice.

In Georgia, there is no protocol currently in place for timely submission of rape kits. This created a backlog of kits, including 1,400 at Grady Hospital alone. While Grady has reduced the number of kits to 150, there is no way of knowing how many other kits are currently sitting in hospitals across the state. HB 827 will allow us to count all the untested kits that need to be processed. A partial count in 2015 revealed 3,108 untested kits.

While funding has been put into place to test the backlog of rape kits, there is still no procedure for timely submission of rape kits. The lack of protocol for rape kits as they move from hospitals and law enforcement to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation initially caused a backlog in the first place. This piece of legislation puts into place straightforward protocol, including a 30-day timeline for submission.

The bill, passed unanimously in the House with a 160-to-0 vote, is widely supported by both parties, advocate groups, law enforcement and the public.

This is not just a statewide issue; this is a national issue. Other states, including Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Tennessee have already enacted legislation to conduct audits on untested rape kits. Texas alone uncovered 20,000 untested kits. The question is not about whether or not Georgia has a backlog. We already know the answer. What we need to understand is how many kits are sitting on the shelves of hospitals throughout our state. HB 827 will answer this question for us.

The importance of this bill cannot be overstated; it provides clear and practical protocol that gives victims the best chance to seek justice. And even more critical, this bill is for victims. Enacting legislation restores faith for survivors and sends the message that we should continue to report sexual assault crimes. If lawmakers demand accountability and transparency when it comes to rape kit testing, we can improve the numbers of unreported rapes. No victim should ever choose not to report because we feel like nothing will happen. Our elected officials have shown us we matter to them; and now it’s time for them to find a way to pass this bill in 2016.

Send requests for this bill to be passed during the final days of the 2016 state legislative session to Gov. Deal, Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, and Speaker of the House David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge. Do it now. Do it today.

Jessica Caldas is an Atlanta artist and an advocate for social issues.