Imagine the unimaginable: You've been raped. You manage to pull yourself together to report your rape to the police or a hospital. You tell them what happened, reliving the nightmare. You receive essential medical attention. Then, for the next four to six hours, you submit to the collection of DNA evidence. Your body is swabbed and combed -- literally -- for evidence. This invasive and traumatic procedure produces a small package called a sexual assault evidence kit -- commonly referred to as a rape kit.
As tough as this procedure can be on you both physically and emotionally, you go through it because you know that gathering evidence of this crime will insure that the perpetrator is not only caught, but also incarcerated so that he can never hurt anyone again.
You go through it because the potential benefits of doing a rape kit are enormous: Evidence from the kit can identify an unknown perpetrator whose DNA is already in the system; confirm the presence of a known assailant; corroborate the victim's account of the rape; and exonerate innocent suspects.
If -- and only if -- the kit is actually tested.
Unfortunately, in too many cases, rape kits sit untested in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the country. Though no federal entity collects rape kit data, experts in the federal government estimate that hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain untested in cities across the United States. In the past two years alone, the cities of Los Angeles, Detroit, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, San Diego, Birmingham and Albuquerque and the states of Illinois and Massachusetts have discovered tens of thousands of untested kits in police stations and crime labs.
By failing to test these rape kits, we are telling victims that pursuing justice doesn't matter, that convicting violent perpetrators and taking them off our streets is not a top priority.
The most common reason given for not testing these kits is the expense, with an average cost of around $1200. But we must find ways to fund this important work to send out the word that raping someone has serious criminal consequences. That rape will be punished. And that our justice system cares about victims.
In light of the rape kit backlog, it seems fair to ask: Why should we put women through hours of an invasive procedure if we don't follow through and test their kits? The last thing anyone wants is for news of the rape kit backlog to discourage women from coming forward to have a rape kit collected.
And while testing rape kits is important to advance investigations, it also sends an important message: It shows victims that their cases -- and their pain and their anguish -- matter.
What else can opening a rape kit personally do for a woman, in addition to providing evidence to prosecute and convict her attacker? Here's what a woman who was raped in California had to say when her rape kit was tested after thirteen years and her rapist was finally identified: "Finally, my nightmares have stopped almost altogether. I have a sense of security that I haven't felt in over a decade. My home is my own. My family is safe."
The good news is that we can fix this problem. New York City eliminated its backlog in 2003 to dramatic effect -- the arrest rate for rape jumped from 40 to 70 per cent.
Wednesday's episode of Law and Order: SVU, "Behave," shows the dire consequences of the rape kit backlog. We hope it will move you to action. To learn more about how you can help, go to a new web-site launching on September 29th, endthebacklog.org. Together we can end the rape kit backlog and bring justice to victims.
Neal Baer is the Executive Producer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit on NBC; Mariska Hargitay is the Emmy-winning star of SVU and the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation.