Information is power for survivors of sexual assault. Thanks to a new pilot program to electronically track rape kits, those accessing the services of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners of Athens-Clarke County will be more knowledgeable about the status of their case.
Rape kits are essential if a survivor chooses to pursue a criminal investigation. SANE provides free forensic medical exams to survivors in 11 surrounding counties and tailors their examinations to fit the needs of the survivor, whether that be taking DNA samples from a recent assault or identifying evidence of trauma from past abuse. In collaboration with local law enforcement, SANE also assists survivors in navigating routes of criminal investigation and evidence processing.
Launched Sept. 14, SANE’s pilot is in partnership with the Athens-Clarke County Police Department, University of Georgia Police Department, Oconee County Sheriff’s Office and The Cottage, a nonprofit for those affected by sexual assault and child abuse. The tracking process begins when a kit is registered into an online portal by the producing company. Accessible to SANE and its partners, as well as the survivors themselves, the portal is updated as SANE nurses, law enforcement officials, and others scan the kit’s barcode as it moves through evidence processing.
“It gives the ability for a survivor to see when their kit changes from our agency, when it changes from law enforcement to the crime lab and if the crime lab has tested it. You can also show if it was retained by an agency, so it helps them know exactly where it is, at any point in the process,” SANE Executive Director Michelle Dickens says. “The idea is to reduce a backlog and give the information back to the survivor so that they can follow their evidence.”
Along with many other states, Georgia has suffered a significant backlog of rape kits. In 2016, 3,500 kits were waiting to be tested by the time it was first addressed by legislation that March. The sexual assault kit tracking initiative is the most recent effort by Georgia lawmakers to prevent another accumulation of unprocessed rape kits. Unanimously passed and signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp in May, House Bill 255, or the Sexual Assault Reform Act of 2021, assigned the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) the task of developing the system with grant funding.
Dickens serves on the State Sexual Assault Expert Committee. The committee worked closely with CJCC to design the tracking program. Because of its involvement with the legislation and status as the only provider of forensic medical exams in the area, SANE was chosen as the collection site, but all partners offer crucial assistance.
“This project is not us in a vacuum. Our partners that we work with were all selected to be a part of this pilot,” Dickens says. “Those agencies also play an important role in this project as well. Because the Cottage provides some of those advocacy services, they’re assisting survivors and helping them be able to track if they have any trouble with the system.”
The SANE pilot is expected to run through this November. The goal, Dickens says, is to have all required agencies registered and electronically tracking sexual assault kits by June 2022, because as the program expands across Georgia, more and more survivors will receive empowering updates about the location status of their evidence.
SANE nurses received training on how to change the status of a kit and generate a pin number for a survivor’s accessibility. The pilot does not change the day-to-day work that the nurses are already doing, though—it adds additional procedure, and provides the survivors more autonomy.
“It gives us a little bit more information that we can give to the survivor. It also helps us know what happens to the evidence after the test,” Dickens says. “There is a little bit of an extra step administratively, but it doesn’t change anything that we’ve already been doing with regard to collecting evidence, transferring evidence to law enforcement and our law enforcement partners getting into the crime lab, but it does give some visibility to the survivor, and that certainly goes back to our mission of serving survivors in our community.”
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