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Patchwork of policies clouds access to rape kit results in Rhode Island

Target 12

NEWPORT, R.I. (WPRI) – The last thing she remembers before waking up naked in a strange man’s home was watching the sunset on Narragansett Bay. 

The 23-year-old woman, who talked with Target 12 on the condition of anonymity, has since spent more than a year fighting to piece together what happened on Memorial Day 2018, which she claims included her being raped. 

“I found my dress I had been wearing and I booked it out of the house,” she told Target 12. “No shoes. No bag. No nothing – barefoot running down the streets of Newport.”

But her pursuit for information has been anything but easy.

She sought answers from police, lawyers, sexual assault advocates and health officials, who gave conflicting information about what she could and could not know about her own sexual assault forensic exam known commonly as a “rape kit.” 

And it eventually took the threat of legal action to get the answer to her first question: “did I have sex with someone?”

“In the morning, I knew my body didn’t feel right,” she said. “I didn’t really remember anything, so I didn’t want to accuse anyone of anything.”

(Courtesy/RAINN)

Ultimately, police determined there wasn’t enough evidence to move forward with a criminal case, which is common with allegations of sexual assault. Only 46 in every 1,000 reports of sexual assault lead to arrests, according to the national advocacy group Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, also known as RAINN.  

But the woman’s experience navigating the rules and regulations surrounding rape kits in Rhode Island has raised broader questions about what type of information should be accessible by victims of sexual assault.

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. And at least one lawmaker is looking to bring clarity to the issue.

“It’s your body and you have the right to know what’s going on with it,” said Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, D-Central Falls.

Searching for answers

When the woman felt something was wrong that morning, she went to Newport Hospital where a nurse spent hours carefully collecting DNA, clothing and urine samples, along with other potential evidence. 

She received the results months later, which showed elevated levels of a drug she was prescribed and another she wasn’t, along with evidence of spermatozoa – better known as sperm – collected from her vaginal area and swimsuit bottom, according to test results she shared with Target 12. 

“I was so mad, but it was almost a relief,” she said. “I really wasn’t going to know the answer to whether I was crazy and making this up if I didn’t get the [results].”

But the process of getting that information was complicated and filled with conflicting advice. 

After Newport Hospital, the woman’s rape kit was sent to the R.I. Department of Health for further analysis, as is standard operating procedure in Rhode Island. The department is good about testing rape kits in a timely fashion – unlike many other states.

When rape kits are tested, it happens on average within 60 days in Rhode Island. But dozens of kits go untested each year for a variety of reasons, including victims decide not to move forward with the case or law enforcement determines the information isn’t needed. About 70% of rape kits submitted to the health department during the last five years were not tested.

In the case of the woman, the department made it clear they needed the involvement of law enforcement when she inquired about her test results.

“Once we receive the police report, the evidence will be open and analyzed. A report of the findings will be sent to the assigned detective in the case, who will then be able to provide a copy to you,” health officials wrote to the woman in a letter dated Aug. 8, 2018.

At the time, she was communicating with Newport Police mostly through a liaison of Day One, an advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse in Rhode Island.

But the liaison gave her different advice than what she received from the state.

“I have never heard of a police department being able to release those results to a victim in a case,” the advocate wrote to the woman in an email dated Aug. 22. “I’m not sure why the Dept of Health would say that is possible.” 

To further complicate matters, Newport Police Lt. Frank Rosa told Target 12 the department’s policy is that it will share rape kits results with victims verbally, but “the written report is not released.” R.I. Attorney General Office spokesperson Kristy dosReis told Target 12 they consider requests for access on a case-by-case basis, but there’s no written policy.  

Fed up with the confusion, the woman hired a lawyer, who quickly sent a letter threatening legal action to the health department on her behalf. 

“Under HIPAA and Rhode Island law generally, my client upon request is entitled to all medical records of hers and this is one,” the attorney wrote on Sept. 13. “Unless this office receives a certified copy of the report and any reports that you have that we are requesting within a reasonable time I will proceed in the Superior Court against the state of Rhode Island, Rhode Island Department of Health as well as the Newport Police Department.” 

Within a month, the health department released the results to her.

‘Peace of mind’

Target 12’s investigation ultimately found conflicting policies and procedures across different entities involved in sexual assault cases in Rhode Island.

Day One, the leading sexual assault advocate in the state, declined to discuss this case specifically, despite the woman giving Target 12 permission. The nonprofit has since stood by the information it provided to the woman – that rape kits can only be accessed by police and the attorney general – saying they have followed the same policy for years.

The procedure is “based on years of working in partnership with the Attorney General’s Office, Law Enforcement and the Department of Health,” Day One spokesperson John Canole wrote in an email.

It differs, however, from written policy at the health department, which shows victims can directly petition the health department for their results, and the state’s forensic lab chief has discretion to share the information under special circumstances.  

“The [forensic lab chief] will review the request and determine whether or not to provide the information,” according to the policy. 

The health department would not share specific details, but spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said the woman’s case investigated by Target 12 was unprecedented. He pushed back on the idea that there was any breakdown in communication between the different groups involved with providing information related to rape kits.

“We are in regular communication with all of these parties. It is important to differentiate between one extremely unique, challenging case and a very successful, longstanding system of close coordination on behalf of people who have submitted samples for forensic exams after sexual assaults,” he said.

Nonetheless, the discrepancy of information raises bigger questions about whether victims should have access to rape kit tests results and whether others have been advised against trying to access such information independent of law enforcement in the past. When asked whether there was any recourse for others who might be in a similar situation as the woman interviewed by Target 12, the health department offered the following: 

“People always have the ability to make special requests to the forensic science laboratory. However, because we do analyses on sexual assault evidence at the request of police departments, and because police departments work closely with victims when pursuing cases, our approach has traditionally been to release information to law enforcement,” Wendelken said. 

Nationally, sexual assault advocates debate whether rape kit information that doesn’t involve criminal charges should be released to anyone, especially because it could unfairly result in hardship for someone who’s been wrongfully accused. 

RAINN vice president of public policy Camille Cooper (WPRI)

But RAINN vice president of public policy Camille Cooper said that line of thinking is deeply flawed. 

“False allegations are extremely rare. And I think that the perception from people in the general public is that they’re really common – they’re not. That’s the first myth we need to overcome,” Cooper said. “Our position is that they should have that information. … What’s happened to them is very traumatic and the most important thing that should be provided to them is peace of mind.” 

Taking a toll

Since Target 12 started reporting this story, the R.I. Attorney General’s office called a meeting with the woman to reiterate what she had already learned from police: there’s not enough evidence to move forward with a criminal case. 

Her rape kit information will be preserved with the state for a total of ten years should police want to access it again for any future investigation, according to the health department. The woman is considering whether to file a civil suit related to the matter, but the time and effort she’s put into fighting for herself so far has come with a toll.

“I’ve done as much as I can on my own time, but it costs a lot of time and money for lawyers and people to dig into this,” she said.

But her experience could ultimately result in change in Rhode Island law.

Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, who learned about the woman’s story, said she wants to make the process clearer and easier to follow for victims in the future. The Central Falls Democrat said she will file legislation next session that would guarantee a victim’s access to their own rape kit information, regardless of criminal proceedings.

Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, D-Central Falls (WPRI)

Crowley, who said she has two close friends who were sexually assaulted in the past, said the issue to her is clear.

“No one – not a state, not a medical office, not a police department – should hold back information from you, the victim, no matter what it says,” she said.

As for the woman, she hopes no one else will have to go through what she did to obtain similar information in the future.

“I have had my severe weak moments, and I’ve been very mentally and emotionally drained by this,” she said. “I can’t imagine someone who doesn’t have as strong a support system.”  

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Susan Campbell (scampbell@wpri.com) is the Call 12 for Action and Target 12 consumer investigator for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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