Sheriff Baca: Don't Let Rape Victims Down

08/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A year ago I interviewed the mother of a young woman from Wisconsin who had been raped by a man she met while visiting her cousin in Los Angeles. It had been eight months since the rape, and the rape kit -- the physical evidence -- in her daughter's case still had not been sent to a crime laboratory. The mother had two simple questions for me: "Why is her kit still unopened?" and, "When will they test her kit?" I didn't have good answers for her then. It's been over a year and I still don't have good answers for her.

Two weeks ago, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department announced that in May, it stopped testing rape kits indefinitely because of a lack of funds. The news stunned those of us who report on and monitor the rape kit backlog in Los Angeles -- 12,500 untested cases all told, including 5,000 in the Sheriff's storage facility. This is devastating news to rape survivors, who are waiting for public officials to match their promises to fix their rape kit backlog with action. After an immediate outcry, Sheriff Lee Baca said he would find the money, although he has given no details about where it will come from or when rape kit testing will start up again. The surprise announcement and the haphazard response raise doubts about how serious Los Angeles officials are about seeking justice for rape victims.

A victim who reports a rape is asked to submit to a four-to-six-hour process of collecting DNA evidence from her body. Testing the resulting rape kit can identify a suspect, and an arrest can prevent the rapist from striking again, as has occurred in some tragic cases we identified in our research.

The testing can also connect evidence from apparently unrelated crimes, corroborate the victim's account, and exonerate innocent suspects. It can bolster investigations, and move more rape cases through the criminal justice system. Given that fewer than one-third of reported rapes in Los Angeles result in an arrest, testing has the potential to improve a historically anemic criminal justice response to rape. After HRW issued our March 2009 report on the rape kit backlog in Los Angeles, county and city officials promised real reform. Leaders made a commitment to find the money to eliminate the backlog, and to provide the oversight required to ensure success.

This year, Los Angeles City finally committed money for rape kit testing after years of advocacy from rape treatment providers. But on the County side, the Sheriff's office allowed funding to run out without informing County officials or rape victim advocates beforehand. Perhaps just as disturbing, County officials reported that of the hundreds of backlogged rape kits that have been tested, only six have been submitted to the DNA databank to test for possible criminal and crime scene matches. That raises concerns about whether the Sheriff intends to make use of this evidence to strengthen rape kit investigations. Testing rape kits does little good if nothing is done with the results.

Sheriff Baca must immediately develop a plan for testing the kits and using the resulting evidence, make it public, and follow it. The County Board of Supervisors, which is monitoring the backlog, should provide more stringent and exacting oversight. It should demand a public plan from Sheriff Baca, and ensure the budgetary support to clear the backlog and test every future booked rape kit. Until that happens, there will continue to be a serious disconnect between what the County has promised on rape kit testing and what it is actually doing.

While the County 's problems with rape kit testing have been highlighted these past few weeks, there are still concerns about the City's backlog. While the Los Angeles Police Department now has the funding necessary to test its backlogged kits this year, the LAPD's public plan for eliminating the backlog is neither comprehensive nor robust. The City Council should demand a more aggressive plan and should oversee implementation of that plan.

A year after we started our research, the voice of the rape victim's mother still echoes in my head. At the end of our conversation, she said, "I was the one who told my daughter to go to the hospital to get a rape kit collected. If her kit doesn't get tested, did I tell her to go through all that for nothing?" I have no answer to that question either.

Sarah Tofte is a researcher with the U.S. Division of Human Rights Watch.