Victims shouldn't have to pay for rape kits--though Sarah Palin might feel differently
The latest Sarah Palin controversy has to do with whether victims of sexual assault were charged for rape kits in the Alaskan town of Wasilla when Palin was mayor.
Did it happen, and did she know it?
"Rape kit" is a term that encompasses the physical exam and testing of forensic evidence collected during the exam. The May 22, 2000, issue of The Frontiersman, the Wasilla daily newspaper, reported that House Bill 270, sponsored by Rep. Eric Croft (D-Anchorage), made it illegal to bill victims or victims' insurance companies for the cost of medical exams related to an assault.
The article stated, "While the Alaska State Troopers and most municipal police agencies have covered the cost of exams, which cost between $300 to $1,200 apiece, the Wasilla police department does charge the victims of sexual assault for the tests."
The speculation is that Palin didn't support the new bill because it included emergency contraception, provoking one voice from the comments gallery to suggest that for Palin, "life begins at rape."
Palin doesn't believe in abortion even in cases of rape or incest. According to CNN, the rape rate in Alaska is 2.5 times the national average. Palin only supports a women's right to abortion to "save the life of the mother," a semantic riddle in a country where 47 million citizens lack health insurance and 37 million live below the poverty level.
Meanwhile, current Wasilla Mayor Dianne M. Keller's office recently posted a conflicting statement: "A review of files and case reports within the Wasilla Police Department has found no record of sexual assault victims billed for forensic exams. State law AS 18.68.040, which was effective 8/14/2000, would have prohibited any such billings after that date."
Both the confusion--and the heinous issue itself of charging victims--is not unique to Alaska.
Last February North Carolina's Raleigh News & Observer chronicled the problem, reporting the "vast majority" of patients examined for sexual assault in North Carolina shoulder some of the cost of a rape kit.
Since the Observer story ran, North Carolina law has changed. But reports of similar problems from all over the country continue to surface in response to the Palin uproar.
So what about Philadelphia and Pennsylvania?
According to Joanne Tosti-Vasey, president of Pennsylvania NOW, a bill passed in 1995 that prohibited charging victims for rape kits and exams in Pennsylvania.
This bill, though, didn't help "Michelle," who says Doylestown Hospital sent her a bill for an exam she requested in 2003 after waking up frightened that she'd been sexually assaulted while asleep. She says she didn't submit insurance information at first because she didn't want her family to know what happened. In the end she paid $50 as a co-pay out of pocket.
Philadelphia's very progressive on this issue, says Carol Johnson, executive director of Women Organized Against Rape and chairperson of the Philadelphia Sexual Assault Advisory Council, which includes the District Attorney's Office, Philadelphia Forensic Lab, the Philadelphia Police Department and a number of area hospitals.
The Council developed a protocol. After being picked up by the police, an ambulance or being stabilized at the closest emergency room, victims of sexual assault are escorted to the closest certified rape crisis centers-- either the Episcopal campus of Temple University Hospital or Jefferson Hospital.
Rape kits are funded out of the Philadelphia Police Department's budget.
"The bigger issue around rape kits is how many of them aren't processed," says Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project. Tracy explains that many police departments don't process the kit unless there's a suspect--doomed logic, of course, as a hit in the DNA database can identify assailants unfamiliar to victims.
The backlog of unprocessed rape kits in the U.S. is huge. Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) estimates there are 500,000 rape kits sitting on shelves waiting to be tested. Maloney fought to pass the Debbie Smith Act, which provides federal grants to municipalities in an effort to reduce the backlog. In 2001, ABC News and the Baltimore Police Department collaborated in an experiment: An analysis of 39 random "cold case" kits resulted in seven "hits" and one exoneration.