The balancing Act

A new federal mandate compensates for the mutually exclusive needs of sex crime investigations and sexual assault victims

     "Our policy and our decision is we're going to hold [the rape kits] as long as the … case is prosecutable," Bellshaw says. "If a victim comes in to see us five years from now, we're still going to have that evidence."

     It was falsely reported in May by a variety of news organizations that the federal mandate required states to practice anonymous — or Jane Doe — reporting. OVW confirms that to be untrue. However, some states, such as Massachusetts and Oregon, are providing anonymity anyway. In Oregon, sexual assault forensic exam (SAFE) kits are assigned a case number and the evidence is kept sealed, to be opened if the victim presses charges. State law in Massachusetts requires medical providers to report rapes and sexual assaults regardless if the victim wishes to pursue a case. To comply with the federal and state law, providers do not include victim information, only information regarding the assault and where it took place, according to the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, which is helping states develop systems to comply by the 2009 deadline.

Blank check

     OVW, the office in charge of enforcing the Act, warns that failure to comply will result in the loss of STOP Violence Against Women Formula Grant Program (STOP Program) funds. According to OVW, all 50 states currently receive STOP funding. Dyer says the contingency funding stipulation was written in to the mandate to give states a compelling reason to meet VAWA 2005's terms. That means states will need to coordinate or finalize efforts to provide free access to forensic examinations for sexual assault victims in the next five months or face federal funding losses.

     Diane DeAngelis, VAWA grant administrator in the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety & Security (MEOPSS), orders and coordinates the distribution of rape kit materials to hospitals in the state. DeAngelis has been working with the office for five years, and explains that the state had already been offering free exams to victims during that time. However, prior to January 2008, hospitals had been asked to waive fees for the exams. DeAngelis stated that MEOPSS had to develop a better process to pay for the exams to remove responsibility from hospitals. The solution Massachusetts came up with was to partner with its Victim Compensation Program.

     "Because we had a good system in place already in Massachusetts, it made things easier to bridge and partner with that agency, and to enable the coverage of such expenses," DeAngelis says.

     Victims who receive an exam in that state fill out an application for the state to cover the fees. A similar process exists in Oregon. Executive Director for Oregon Attorney General's Sexual Assault Task Force, and a former sex crimes prosecutor for Seattle, Washington, Christine Herrman explains that Oregon pays for exams through a fund similar to a victim compensation fund.

     DeAngelis explains that Massachusetts appropriates $120,000 annually for the ordering of kits. Each kit costs $26.40, but that figure does not include service or the implementation of the kit in a hospital setting. And with the exams estimated at $800 each, a spike in victims presenting at hospitals could become costly.

     In essence, the VAWA mandate requires states agree to pay an unspecified amount in order to continue receiving a predetermined amount of federal grants, which is based on a population formula. Last year, $114 million in STOP Program funds were distributed between all states. This could mean that some of the money states receive in grants may be canceled out by exam costs.

     "There would be no way of knowing how many victims would appear for an exam," Dyer says. "I suppose they could look at their sexual assault numbers, but … we don't know if maybe this new requirement will cause new victims to come and get that exam, so even if you had prior numbers, they may not be indicative of what your numbers now will be."

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