This Is Why Rape Kit Reform Matters

by Helena Lazaro for CNN/HLN
published 4/28/15

The recent flurry of attention around the topic of sexual violence has taken many off guard, including me. Cynics wonder where the sudden sense of urgency surrounding the matter derives from and question its legitimacy.

Naturally. Any issue du jour that seems to materialize overnight breeds skepticism. But I can tell you that it didn’t happen overnight.

I was 17 when I was abducted from a car wash near my home and repeatedly raped at knifepoint in 1996. I eventually convinced my assailant to spare my life and release me, but not before he took my driver’s license so he would know where I lived, swearing to return and kill everyone in my home if I ever told police what had happened.

I risked my life and the safety of my family to report the crime that same night. I underwent the painful and humiliating evidence collection process needed to compile a rape kit.

Inexplicably, this crime went virtually ignored by police for more than 13 years.

During that time, I lived in a constant state of terror. I was certain the man would return, as promised, to finish the job he’d started. Every sound in the darkness was his footstep. There were entire nights when I sat in the bedroom doorway with the cordless phone in hand, 9-1-1 dialed, waiting to press Send.

Every few months, I would summon the courage to reach out to law enforcement again. Each time, my inquiries were met with disinterest — even disdain. I tried to give up and “move on.” However, as many survivors can attest, there is no moving on for someone whose entire world is comprised of darkness and fear. Every landscape is the same.

I would see the cold case justice on television and wonder if my evidence might still be out there, holding the key to my perpetrator’s identity. I just wanted to know where my kit was, what had happened to it. Had it been tested? Was it sitting on a shelf gathering dust? Had it been destroyed? I begged for help from anyone who would listen. But no one did — until 2009.

That’s when I met a woman working for a local rape crisis agency. When I told her what had happened to me, she was shocked. Seeing someone else feel angry about the lack of police response was surreal after being made to believe for so long that non-reaction was the appropriate reaction. She got an advocate assigned to my case, and my hope was rekindled.

Within two weeks, a sergeant from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department called to tell me that the kit had been processed and there was a DNA match. It was the best Christmas gift I had ever received.

But my joy was short-lived.

Through my own research, I found out that the man was a serial rapist already imprisoned in Ohio for another abduction nearly identical to mine — a rape that could have been prevented if my kit had been tested sooner.

Through advocacy groups, I learned there were thousands of untested rape kits in Los Angeles alone, and likely hundreds of thousands across the country. I couldn’t believe it. I’d been led by law enforcement to believe the failure to investigate my rape was an exception, when it was actually the rule.

That’s when — against the wishes of the District Attorney and Sheriff’s offices — I began sharing my experience, hoping to draw attention to the issue of the rape kit backlog.

Eventually, the man who attacked me pleaded guilty and received a 25-year sentence, but not because he raped me. The statute of limitations had long expired for that charge. We were only able to prosecute him because he had stolen $20 from my wallet when he took my driver’s license. The theft exposed him to a special allegation that was not subject to the same statutes as rape or abduction. It is hard to accept that what happened to my body and spirit was worth less than $20. But, in the end, it didn’t really matter to me why he was in prison, as long as he was. And he will be, until 2044.

I kept speaking, began working as an advocate and did my best to remain functional throughout it all. It was not easy. To be honest, it still isn’t.

Last year, I found out that my kit had actually been tested and the DNA match made in 2003, long before advocates intervened. The information was there. But no one from the Sheriff’s Department bothered to call me.

Sadder yet, anyone who answered my calls could have taken a few minutes out of their day to conduct some research and change my life. It just didn’t matter enough. For six years, my justice rotted away. My statutes expired. How bitter to know that my suffering could have ended so much sooner.

But how much more bitter to know that others are suffering still. How bitter to know that some, like Michelle Bowdler, will never know the identity of their attacker because their rape kit has been lost or destroyed. Or that others will find out too late, unable to prosecute at all because of expired statutes of limitations.

To me, this is the urgency at the heart of reform: The survivors waiting for justice.

And these are the things I wish we could promise them: That we will treat rape like a violent felony and a threat to public safety, because it is. That we will afford its victims a dignity and respect that extends to the way we care for and process the evidence that has been painstakingly collected from their bodies. That we will stop promoting myths and exaggerations about false reporting as an excuse to forego investigation and cast suspicion on everyone brave enough to endure the humiliation and suffering attendant to reporting this crime. Better yet, that we will end the humiliation and suffering attendant to reporting this crime altogether.

The groups calling for reform have been doing so for years, and the systemic failures that they are addressing have existed for decades. If we are just beginning to hear about issues like the rape kit backlog in popular media, it is only because — until now — most people were unwilling to talk about them.

I don’t blame those people. It’s hard just hearing these stories and harder to believe them. Because believing them means acknowledging that they are true, that they happen to people just like us — that they could even happen to us. And living with the awareness of that possibility is paralyzing. I understand, believe me.

I know that we won’t achieve our goals overnight, just like we didn’t get this far overnight. But I know it won’t be long because now, people are listening. I wonder, what will they say in return?

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