A standard rape kit includes the following materials for collecting evidence from a rape victim’s body: swabs for collecting fluids from the lips, cheeks, thighs, vagina, anus, and buttocks; clear glass slides; a comb used to collect hair and fiber from the victim’s body; a nail pick for scraping debris from beneath the nails; white sheets to catch the physical evidence stripped from the body; envelopes for preserving the victim’s clothes, head hair, pubic hair, and blood samples; labels for all the evidence. But more than what’s in the box, a rape kit is a system, a protocol followed in order to streamline the city services deployed in the wake of a sexual assault—including medical care, police investigation, and rape crisis counseling. The contents of the kit are standard-issue hardware for any hospital emergency room. But in Washington, D.C., a rape kit can sometimes be hard to come by.
In 2000, the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program was established at Howard University Hospital in order to facilitate care for the city’s rape victims. Before SANE, the District’s sexual assault survivors were encouraged to report to the OB-GYN section of D.C. General Hospital. According to Denise Snyder, executive director of the D.C. Rape Crisis Center (DCRCC), rape survivors often waited in the D.C. General ER for up to 12 hours while the OB-GYNs attended to more immediate emergencies, like births. When the kits—which can take hours to complete—were finally initiated, the residents administering them weren’t experts in medical forensic exams. Some of the residents were so inexperienced that they would have to read the instructions off the back of the box while performing the invasive exam; as non-experts, they also made for shoddy witnesses at trial.
The SANE program was meant to solve all of these problems. The program gives sexual assault survivors access to nurses who are specifically trained in performing medical forensic exams. If the victim consents to an investigation, the program alerts local police of the assault. It ensures that the completed rape kit is entered into a proper chain of custody to prevent evidence from being corrupted. It provides the victim an expert witness to testify at her trial. It gives her the option of taking STD prophylactics and emergency contraception. And it provides a rape crisis advocate to help provide emotional support throughout the hospital and police processes.
But when the DCRCC secured grants to fund the SANE program a decade ago, Snyder had trouble finding a hospital that was interested in hosting such services. In an interview, Snyder said that she contacted “all the major hospitals in the city” looking for one that would take it on. Some hospitals refused to even respond to her. Some voiced “economic concerns about how much of a drain it would be,” Snyder said. Others were more concerned with image: “One hospital’s response literally was, ‘We don’t want to be the rape hospital,’” Snyder says. Finally, Howard University Hospital agreed to host the program, providing local rape victims a greater chance of seeking justice from their attackers. But once the program was established at Howard, rape victims encountered another problem: All victims would have to receive police authorization before receiving an examination.
“It’s not just the hospitals who are skittish about being associated with rape,” says Snyder. “This is one of the greatest struggles we experience with law enforcement: The pressure on law enforcement is to always get their numbers down. But with sexual assault, seeing higher numbers should often be interpreted as a positive sign, if it means that more women are feeling comfortable to step up and say, ‘I was raped, and I demand justice.’” Snyder says she’s encountered many cases in D.C. where “the police’s assessment of what happened did not match up with what the survivor said happened,” she says. “For a sexual assault survivor who has already experienced an intense violation, to have your governmental system essentially say to you, ‘This didn’t happen, if it did happen it doesn’t really count,’ is devastating.”
Each year, D.C. police report a handful of rape cases as “unfounded”—meaning that after an investigation into a rape allegation, it is determined that no crime actually occurred. But D.C.’s record of unfounded cases doesn’t include all the sexual assault allegations that are dismissed without so much as a report, nevermind an investigation. According to MPD officer Tandreia Green, who was deposed in Hannah’s case, the police department will often quickly determine whether a rape allegation has “ground basis for furthering their investigation” or not. If it doesn’t, Green testified that she won’t take a report at all and will abandon the case with no paperwork. Of all the sexual assault complaints to which Green has responded, she testified that “probably half” ended in the determination that no police report would be filed.
What kinds of allegations are discarded without an investigation? Detective Elgin Wheeler, who joined the Sexual Assault Unit in 2006 and was also deposed in Hannah’s case, provided the example of the “evangelist computer.” According to Wheeler’s testimony, one woman reporting an assault to the SAU claimed that she had been attacked by “a spiritual computer” which, “once you type on it, the images jump off the computer and jump onto you which sexually assaults you,” Wheeler said. “She walked away and had, quote, hot semen running down her leg.…the reason why she was at the hospital was because she woke up and she had, quote, balls of fire on her pubic hair. So I don’t go out for that.”
Detective Vincent Spriggs, who spent 14 years with the Sexual Assault Unit and was deposed in Hannah’s case, can rattle off a handful of rape allegations that didn’t call for a serious investigation from the SAU. In one case, Spriggs testified, “A young lady was found. She was nude, As a matter of fact, in the middle of the street. It was learned that she was actually high on PCP and was never touched.” Then, there was the alleged victim who framed her sex partner because she was “just pissed at him”; the woman who was “trying to get a boyfriend in trouble”; the kid who was “trying to get out of trouble with their parents”; the wife who had “gone over to someone’s house and …needed an explanation to get back in the house without getting into trouble with their husband”; the woman who had unprotected sex and “used [the rape kit request] in order to have a pregnancy test done or the morning after pill administered,” Spriggs testified.
And then there was Hannah’s case. Green, Wheeler, and Spriggs were all involved in the D.C. police response to Hannah’s rape allegation, and all contributed in the decision to abandon her case without completing a sexual assault allegation report.