Rape Kit Backlog Hits Primetime on “SVU”

A woman is raped. Four times by the same man over a 15-year period. She is afraid to leave her home and hires people to do her shopping and all her outside chores. She works inside her apartment, which is locked up like a prison cell at San Quentin. She is the prisoner; terrorized, badly hurt and unable to stop the rapist, she has put herself in solitary confinement.

This is the beginning of last weeks’ episode of NBC’s Law and Order: SVU. The story goes on to give the viewers an unfiltered look at what a rape victim must go through if she is going to get justice–and very few rape victims do get justice. Rape is under-reported and difficult to prosecute, and law enforcement is often reluctant to bring cases to prosecutors since they will likely be thrown out.

What Mariska Hargitay and Neal Baer (star and showrunner of Law and Order: SVU) brought to the small screen is not just one woman’s rape story, but a much larger and current issue: the tragedy of rape-kit backlogs.

A rape kit is not a whistle, as one of my friends thought it was. It’s the evidence gathered after a rape, and gathering that evidence can be a trial in itself for the victimized woman. First, she must not shower, brush her teeth or change her clothes after being raped. Then, while still in shock and pain, she must submit herself to hours of probing (the heartbreak of which was effectively dramatized on SVU). Swabs are taken from the woman’s vagina, mouth and anus. Any piece of potential DNA evidence is scraped or lifted off of her and placed in her rape evidence kit.

In a perfect world … well, in a perfect world there would be no rape … but in the world as it is, rape evidence kits would be rushed immediately to forensic labs where technicians could test the DNA and upload the data to the FBI data bank known as CODIS (Combined DNA Indexing System). Law enforcement would then check that DNA against all the DNA taken from felons and stored in CODIS. They would hopefully find a match, and go arrest the rapist.

But as the episode of SVU pointed out, this is not what usually occurs. Instead, there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape evidence kits in the country. Although one in six U.S. women will be raped in her lifetime, the law enforcement system is not yet functioning well enough to get many of those rapists–who are often repeat offenders–off the streets.

For a short film I worked on, I was researching the rape kits that are sitting in storage and not being tested. Los Angeles County alone had more than 12,000 rape evidence kits sitting in freezers last year awaiting testing, and there are other large backlogs in such cities as Minneapolis, Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Houston and Oakland. Some of these kits have been abandoned for so long, they can no longer be used against the rapist because the statute of limitations has passed.

The reasons for this frightening lag in crime investigation range from lack of funds for the relatively new DNA technology to lack of forensic technicians who know how to use the technology to under-equipped forensic labs. Throw in a reluctance to believe a woman when she says she has been raped and you understand the enormity of the challenge in bringing rapists to justice.

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation (and publisher of Ms.) recently testified in front of a U.S. Senate subcommittee investigating the problem. She offered even more chilling statistics to put into the rape kit story: approximately 91 percent of all rapes are committed by someone who has raped before. So if his DNA is safely tucked away in an untested rape kit, he can go on raping with impunity. Without the DNA in the rape kit, the woman has little to no chance of ever seeing her rapist brought to trial.

The survivors of rape who have the courage to subject themselves to evidence gathering deserve to know that rape kits will not sit in a freezer. They need to know that law enforcement and all levels of government will catch up with the available forensic technology. New York City had a backlog of 15,000 rape kits, but in four years they tested every kit by adding additional labs, outsourcing the tests and training more technicians. If New York can do it, so can Los Angeles and every other backlogged city.

So a big shout out to Mariska Hargitay and Neal Baer for bringing this issue to greater attention through the mass media of TV. We can’t catch rapists until we catch up on this shameful backlog of rape kits.

Photo from Flickr user CrashIntoTheSun under Creative Commons 2.0.


  1. Nancy Mikelsons says:

    Once again MS. Rubin has taken on a major issue of discrimination against women. If men were raped as often as women there would be no backlog of untested rape kits. One of the most important points of the episode that Ms. Rubin is referencing in her blog is the statute of limitations that exists in most major jurisdictions. If legislators could be convinced that there should be no statute of limitations of less than ten years it would make the possibility of catching serial rapists much greater. And this change in the law wouldn't cost anyone a dime! Thank you again, Ms. Rubin for picking a difficult subject and making an important analysis of material that came to its audience through a very popular TV series. A lot more discussion of these issues as presented by TV and movies would be a tremendous gift to the women of this and other countries. Ms. Rubin has as in previous blogs written a most articulate piece bringing together popular culture and a serious criminal justice administration issue. The vast majority of high level criminal justice administrators are men, hospitals are basically run by men, is there any surprise to this grim picture that Ms. Rubin has painted so vividly for us? This is what MS. magazine does best, and I hope there will be more blogs and articles that reveal the connections between such issues as child and wife abuse, the rapid increase of the incarceration of women and other aspects of U.S. life that do not treat women with the same attention as men receive. Thank you Susan Rubin, I look forward to continued excellence from your blog.

  2. The SVU franchise has long worn out its welcome to TV critics, but the issues the series raises continue to be eye-opening. That it takes a franchised series like L&O-SVU to bring the issue of backlogged rape kits to millions of Americans is disturbing. With so few offenders ever brought to trial, it's no wonder women end up suffering in silence. We all need to engage in getting the SAFER act passed.

  3. It was not mentioned Hargitay also testified in front of congress about the backlog several months ago.
    Her work is amazing for victims.

  4. Marielena says:

    The show continues to bring light to many issues that should concern us. This week's episode dealt with not only human sex trafficking of children in our backyards but also showed young girls being prostituted as young as 13. It also made a point to explain that sex trafficking victims aren't just oversees, they are in our hometowns often being charged with prositution even though they can't even consent to sex. Shows need to expose more than just sex and murder to get ratings. I wasn't the biggest fan of SVU but they definitely got my attention this season.

  5. Thanks for posting this timely blog. As our municipalities continue to face harsh deficits it is important that we demand that the resources are in place to find and convict these rapists. It is time to reprioritize spending away from our failed war on drugs (re: war on ourselves) and apply it to violent crimes like rapes. There is no excuse for this backlog. Thank you SVU, MS., and S. Rubin.

  6. Thanks for calling this to my attention. I catch SVU some evenings and am always impressed by Mariska Hargitay's compassion and anger over the victimization of women. But I didn't see this show and wasn't aware of the rape-kit backlog – though I suppose I should have guessed it.

  7. Both SVU AND Susan Rubin make a powerful argument that the backlog of rape kits constitutes two serious violations of justice: equal protection for women, a long, long struggle not yet won; civil/human rights, in which an untested rape kit equals the denial of the right to justice, and hopefully closure to a scarring experience.

  8. Excellent piece. This was eye-opening and heartbreaking. Thank you, Susan Rubin.

  9. Both Susan and her commentors are right on target. Unfortunately, I fear that we are all "preaching to the choir." The real issue now is how do we reach the "right" people so that this abominable situation is rectified? I hope Susan follows up with some pro-active suggestions that we can all work on and pass along to those who don't watch shows like SVU (I happen to be one of them) or read MS or are even aware of this.

  10. Carrying rape kits? Carry a gun. At one time, the feminist movement was very conservative, driven by a desire to bring women up to the status of men. Can we honestly tell the next generation that this is still true? John R. Lott, Jr., researched the crime issue thoroughly, and found that only three things consistently reduce crime: increased likelihood of being caught, more severe sentencing (though not necessarily longer sentences), and private ownership of firearms. Women are more likely to be the victims of these crimes, and should go about their day always prepared to test the theory of Social Darwinism when confronted by one of these career criminals.

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