PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The state’s top prosecutor and leading sexual assault advocacy group are both pushing back on proposed legislation that supporters claim would guarantee victims the right to access rape kit results.
The proposed law would require all rape kits collected as part of sexual assault investigations to be submitted for forensic testing, and that the results would have to be provided to the victim, along with law enforcement and prosecutors.
State Sen. Elizabeth Crowley, a Central Falls Democrat who is sponsoring the legislation, said the idea stemmed in part from a months-long Target 12 investigation that found conflicting advice about what information victims can access from their own rape kits, especially when no criminal charges are filed.
“We shouldn’t be making victims of our victims,” Crowley said during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday. “If she needs to get a copy of her report, that’s a medical issue – it’s a medical report – and you should have the ability to get your medical report.”
The legislation – while designed to help victims – has nonetheless evoked concerns from Attorney General Peter Neronha and Day One executive director Peg Langhammer, whose group works closely with law enforcement in cases of sexual assault.
The concerns focus on whether anyone should have rape kit information if the matter doesn’t involve criminal charges, which echo a nationwide debate among sexual assault advocates. Langhammer backs the position that kits should be left untested unless the victim decides to take the issue to police, which is typically how it works right now in Rhode Island.
“On behalf of the thousands of victims we see each year, Day One strongly opposes passage of this legislation,” Langhammer wrote in a letter the organization plans to submit to the Senate committee.
Neronha spokesperson Kristy dosReis said the attorney general’s office likewise has concerns with the legislation as drafted because it could compromise evidence used in prosecutions.
“While we understand and appreciate the unique needs of victims in these cases, we have to balance those needs with preserving the integrity of evidence in ongoing prosecutions,” dosReis wrote in an email, adding that they’d be willing to work with Crowley and others to address some of those concerns.
Target 12’s investigation discovered one woman who couldn’t access her rape kit results in part because police and prosecutors determined there wasn’t enough evidence to move forward with a criminal case.
She sought answers from law enforcement, lawyers, Day One and state health officials, who gave her conflicting information about what she could and could not know about her rape kit. It eventually took the threat of legal action to get the answer to her first question: “Did I have sex with someone?”
The woman, who spoke to Target 12 on the condition of anonymity, said she was encouraged to learn that Crowley filed the legislation. But she expressed frustration when she heard that Day One and Neronha opposed it, arguing victims should have the right — regardless of criminal proceedings — to have access to rape kit test results.
“This should have been done a long time ago,” she told Target 12 on Wednesday.
Following Target 12’s original report, Day One announced it would create a special task force of sexual assault advocates, prosecutors and the R.I. Department of Health to come up with policy changes to establish more concrete rules surrounding access to rape kit information.
The group of stakeholders met for the first time last week. Langhammer said in her testimony she would like to see that review of policies move forward rather than the proposed legislation.
“The current protocol for sexual assault evidence collection kits are the best procedure to ensure a victim-centered approach and best chance for criminal justice,” she wrote.
Department of Health spokesperson Joseph Wendelken said the proposed law wouldn’t change how his department disseminates information, but he did raise concern about “the practical feasibility of adhering to a mandated 15-day deadline.”
When rape kits are tested, it happens on average within 60 days in Rhode Island. State officials are quick to point out that Rhode Island doesn’t suffer from the daunting backlog of rape kits that are waiting to be tested in many other states across the country.
But dozens of kits still go untested each year in Rhode Island for a variety of reasons, including victims deciding not to move forward with the case or law enforcement determining the information isn’t needed.
About 70% of rape kits submitted to the health department during the last five years were not tested.
Crowley, whose legislation was held for further study, said she’s heard some of the concerns, and is willing to work with the groups to address some of them. But she’s also steadfast in her resolve that a law is needed to guarantee victims the right to access rape kit test results.
“Women or men who are victims of rape – they need to get the satisfaction of knowing that they can get results from our government – from our state,” Crowley said. “This is the time we need to address this very important issue.”
Susan Campbell contributed to this story.