Last week, the Senate Subcommittee on Civil and Criminal Justice heard an update on the numbers of sexual assault kits being tested that had previously been shelved away in a seemingly never-ending backlog – over 2000, according to Florida Department of Law Enforcement numbers, since Gov. Rick Scott ordered the testing of as many as possible in 2015.
But according to Orlando Victim Services Center Program Director JoEllen Revell and Marketing and Communications Director Shelley Rodgers, those numbers don’t mean everything is suddenly rosy for sexual assault victims.
Rather, they say more nuance is needed in dealing with such a complex topic.
“We support testing the kits in the self-determination of the victim,” Rodgers said. “Some of the victims may not need for that to happen. Especially if it’s beyond the statute of limitations of eight years in Florida, and nothing can be done with the results.”
When a sexual assault kit testing returns a “hit” on an offender’s DNA, the victim will be notified – and that may not always be the best thing for them if they’re not expecting it.
“Loss of control is what happens to a victim in an assault,” Revell said. “They lose control, they lose their power. As a process for healing, we try to empower these individuals – whether that means they want their kit tested, a trial or even a civil suit. The victim needs to gain back control.”
The problem in the state’s current effort to go back and test old backlogged sexual assault kits is that sometimes, victims have moved on, Revell and Rodgers said – and the reveal of their results may upset the lives they’ve put back together.
“With the change in the law, there’s a new conversation that happens with a victim about their options,” Revell said. “But the victims of the past don’t have that information. If it’s maybe five years later, or 10 years later, and they’ve relocated, started a family or a new career, that news is going to impact them, good, bad or otherwise. They may not be ready for the information, and it could be unexpected.”
Because many people – including victims of sexual assault – move around and don’t stay in one place forever, they may not be in contact with their local sexual assault victim services center anymore, either, once the results of their kit’s test come up.
So Revell and Rodgers, and many other professionals in their field, do not think it’s the best approach for forensics labs to test every single kit, including those from victims who didn’t consent for their kits to be tested or who didn’t go to law enforcement.
But they said they’re working on ways to improve outreach and support for victims in need.
“We’re internally talking in our agency and with others,” Rodgers said. “We talk about issues that arise and solutions. It’s about listening to victims, listening to new clients and listening to our staff. We’re a victim-centered community. Our purpose is the victim’s rights and needs.”