MIDDLETOWN, R.I. (WPRI) – A daughter is speaking out about victims’ lack of clear access to rape kit information in Rhode Island after her 80-year-old mother said she was raped last year.
The daughter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, contacted reporters after seeing a Target 12 report Monday that revealed victims of sexual assault are not guaranteed access to their own rape kit information and that there are conflicting policies surrounding the process.
“Until I saw your story a few mornings ago, I thought it was just going to be a case that never got answered or settled,” she said. “I thought of mom as soon as I heard that woman’s story on the air and was like, ‘OK, mom, we’re not alone.’”
The woman’s mother, who has dementia and has signed over health care power of attorney privileges to her daughter, claims she was raped a year ago. A police report shows the alleged sexual assault happened in August 2018.
Middletown police did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and the woman said she doesn’t know if any investigation is moving forward.
The morning after the alleged assault, the woman’s mother was transported to Newport Hospital, where health care providers conducted a sexual assault forensic exam known commonly as a rape kit.
The daughter was hopeful the rape kit results could help shed light on what happened that night, but was taken aback when health care providers told her she didn’t automatically have access to that information.
“I asked when the answers would be available and they told me, ‘Oh, honey. They sit in a crime lab until they take it to trial,’” the daughter said.
The 80-year-old woman’s experience echoes that of a 23-year-old woman who claims she was raped in Newport in May 2018, although health officials told Target 12 the Newport case was “extremely unique.”
After having a rape kit exam, she sought answers from police, lawyers, sexual assault advocates and health officials, who gave her inconsistent information about what she could and could not know about the results.
A months-long investigation by Target 12 found conflicting advice about what information victims can access from their own rape kits, especially when no criminal charges are filed.
Unlike the young woman in Newport, however, the Middletown woman didn’t have access to the same resources to try and fight for access to her own rape kit results independently of police.
Her daughter said she was never told at any point she could request the results directly from the R.I. Department of Health.
“I feel like I left her out in left field because I couldn’t get any answers,” the daughter said. “I feel I should have been given the opportunity and I was not.”
In Rhode Island, rape kits are sent to the health department, where they sit untested until police make a request. Absent any direction from law enforcement, the kits are stored for at least 10 years under state law. (There is no statute of limitations for rape, sexual assault or child molestation in Rhode Island.)
For kits that are analyzed, the health department generally gets the work done in a timely fashion, taking about two months on average. But only about 30% of rape kits end up getting tested at all, which has raised questions about whether all rape kits should be tested and who should have access to the results.
In response to Target 12’s investigation, Day One executive director Peg Langhammer said the nonprofit plans to convene a task force of victim advocates, law enforcement and prosecutors with the goal of creating a comprehensive set of policies and procedures surrounding sexual assault cases involving rape kits.
“I think there’s tremendous room for improvement,” Langhammer said. “One of the next steps we’ll be taking is to bring all the players together and to take a look at, are we offering victims best practices? I don’t think we are. But I do think everyone involved wants to.”
Still, she stopped short of supporting the idea that all rape kits should be tested, saying victims don’t always want that type of information. And while victims must be central to the process, she said, the decision about whether forensic information is tested and then shared with anyone must happen in conjunction with law enforcement.
“It’s forensic evidence. It’s not like getting access to the results of an infection exam or an HIV test,” Langhammer said. “It’s very different, and I think it’s really important that that go through the process of going to law enforcement and prosecution.”
Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, D-Central Falls, is proposing a different approach. After learning of Target 12’s findings, she said she plans to draft legislation that would require every rape kit be tested and give victims guaranteed access to the results.
“Very basically, it’s your information and you have a right to know,” Crowley told Target 12.
The daughter in Middletown said she’s hopeful some change will come from sharing her mother’s story.
“I’m trying to do this for her and anyone else,” she said. “I just felt like it was falling upon deaf ears.”