‘Untested Evidence’: Sexual assault survivors struggle to access rape kits in Canada

TORONTO — In the early 1970s, Martha “Marty” Goddard was living in Chicago and volunteering at a crisis hotline where she offered support to teenage girls who had been raped. She was determined to find a way to hold sexual predators accountable for their crimes. Goddard set out to transform forensics and envisioned the first standardized sexual assault kit – also known as the rape kit – to be used by health-care workers to preserve the evidence from a sexual assault.

At the time, police were often skeptical of women who claimed they were sexually assaulted. Officers would regularly insinuate that women had provoked the attack and had even enjoyed the sex. Goddard envisioned an evidence collection kit that meant sexual assault could be investigated as a real crime.

By the early 80s, when rape kits first became available to police, they were praised as an important breakthrough. The New York Times said, “it could be a powerful new weapon in the conviction of rapists” and The Baltimore Sun heralded the kit as a tool “important in standardizing the evidence that can lead to successful prosecutions.” Even media mogul Hugh Hefner and his giant Playboy Foundation recognized its significance and gave Goddard a $10,000 grant for the rape-kit project. That’s the equivalent of about $50,000 today. The press presented the rape kit as a magic bullet that was much-needed in a “he said-she said” era.

But now, years later, She Matters – an advocacy group for sexual assault survivors has found that the kits are not as accessible as they need to be. A team of volunteers called over 700 hospitals across Canada to look for information on sexual assault evidence kits. What they found startled them: 41 per cent of hospitals in Canada do not have these kits on site. In Ontario, almost 40 per cent; in Alberta, 45 per cent; and in Manitoba, 52 per cent of hospitals have no kits on site. They’ve compiled their findings in a ground-breaking report, titled “Silenced.”

Their research also reveals that in some cases, sexual assault survivors had no choice but to travel – sometimes long distances and for many hours – in order to find an evidence kit.

Amanda Lathlin is the first Indigenous woman to be elected to the Manitoba Legislative Assembly. After a young relative was raped on a reserve about 600 km north of Winnipeg, they were told by the RCMP that their local hospital could not do a sexual assault examination on a child.

“We had to be flown out… I couldn’t believe this child couldn’t be examined immediately, especially after the trauma the child just went through.”

Dave Broughton is the president of Latent Forensics – a supplier of crime-scene tools, including rape kits. He says too much travel time can compromise the evidence.

“It’s critical that you collect evidence as quickly as you can, because the evidence is so small. It’s that single hair. It’s that single fibre. It’s that single drop of blood on the skin or on clothing or wherever it is. It’s fragile and it needs to be collected. It needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible before it gets destroyed. Because once it’s gone, it’s gone,” he said.

W5 contacted every provincial and territorial government in Canada, requesting an explanation for the absence of rape kits in hospitals. Most provinces and territories suggested their current funding and access were satisfactory.

Lathlin disagrees and is taking action. She’s launched Bill 213, which would require the Manitoba government to fund training for nurses in northern Manitoba to conduct sexual assault exams on minors.

“It’s inadequate. It’s not acceptable. These services should be there for our children, especially when they have the courage to come forward in the first place.”

Goddard may have succeeded in realizing her vision of collecting evidence for prosecuting rape, but unless a survivor can access one, it’s just a box of swabs and envelopes.

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