Missouri legislature takes steps toward addressing ‘rape kit’ backlog

The Missouri Legislature this session passed three provisions aimed at addressing the thousands of untested rape kits in the state.

The Missouri legislature passed some measures that would address how forensic examination kits, or “rape kits,” are handled in Missouri. Advocates say the changes will likely result in more prosecutions and cases being closed, and better resolutions for victims. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Those kits include DNA samples and other evidence collected in medical examinations conducted after sex crimes.  The Attorney General’s Office has learned of more than 5,000 forensic evidence kits that have gone untested in Missouri.  The exact number remains unclear as not all agencies in the state responded to that office’s inquiries.

Public Policy Director with the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Jennifer Carter Dochler, said for a kit to be sitting on a shelf when a victim wants it to be tested is, “incredibly traumatizing.”

“When they have come forward and told their story and wanted to participate in the process it really is disheartening,” said Carter Dochler.

The Attorney General’s report suggested among other things that the state secure funding for testing kits; create a statewide tracking system for kits; and create standards for the handling of kits.  Those recommendations were addressed by the legislature in its session that ended in May.

House Bill 1355 includes language that requires the Attorney General’s Office to create a statewide tracking system for forensic evidence from sexual assaults.

That provision was originally sponsored by Representative Donna Lichtenegger (R-Cape Girardeau), who hopes it will send a message to victims in Missouri.

“I think that they’ll know now that we’re really serious in trying to find the person who violated them,” said Lichtenegger.

The budget approved by the legislature also gives the Attorney General’s Office authority to apply for a federal grant to fund a statewide tracking system.  The office should learn in September whether it will receive that grant money.

HB 1355 also requires that hospitals and other medical providers should notify law enforcement when they have a forensic evidence kit; that law enforcement shall take possession of a kit within 14 days of that notification; law enforcement shall take it to a laboratory for testing within 14 days of taking possession of it; and that law enforcement will hold on to a kit for 30 years if the related crime has not been prosecuted.

Carter Dochler says this will bring statewide continuity to how evidence kits are treated.

“We have so many inconsistent practices in the state:  inconsistent practices regarding how soon law enforcement picks up the kit; whether or not the kits are submitted for analysis; definitions we’re using,” said Carter Dochler.  “This should help create much more consistent terminology and practices across the state.”

Carter Dochler said it is hoped that with these provisions becoming law, more sex crimes in Missouri will be prosecuted.

“Especially when we’re talking about serial offenders and being able to show a pattern, having multiple kits and the same DNA among those kits is going to be a very important tool for prosecution,” said Carter Dochler.

She said some issues that still must be addressed concern how a kit will be handled when the victims in the associated case has not made a decision whether to report the crime to law enforcement.  She said many of these “unreported” kits remain in hospitals.

“What we’d like to see is consistent practice across the state regarding unreported kits,” said Carter Dochler.  “There should be a centralized place to store unreported kits across the state.  We should also have a consistent practice of how long are they kept before they’re destroyed.”

She said some of those issues could be addressed in departmental rules and regulations, and might not require future legislative action.  HB 1355 does define “reported” and “unreported” kits, and she said those definitions are a first step toward consistency.

Even with such areas still requiring attention, Carter Dochler said from the Coalition’s point of view, the 2018 legislative session saw the passage of many important laws.

“This was an incredibly successful legislative session for us.  We are incredibly proud and very hopeful for the changes it’s going to make in survivors’ life and experience,” said Carter Dochler.

Bill would add info on consent, violence, & harassment to sex education in Missouri high schools

A Missouri representative is proposing that high school students learn about sexual harassment, violence, and consent as part of sexual education.  Her legislation will be heard Tuesday night by the House Committee on Children and Families.

Representative Holly Rehder (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Sikeston Republican Holly Rehder said the idea behind House Bill 2234 was brought to her by students at the University of Missouri who said they wish they had received such an education.  They believe teaching high school students about those subjects could prevent situations that can cause life-changing harm, and Rehder agrees.

“What was so fascinating to me was you have these college students – two girls, is who initially brought it to me – that said, ‘We wish we would’ve had this,’” said Rehder.  “’We don’t know how they were in high school or what their reputation is back home and then we all get lumped in together and we’re at a party, or we’re at an event, or walking to the car, or whatever … you need to know how to speak up for yourself, set those boundaries, and you also need to know how to not cross them.’”

Numerous cases have put sexual harassment, sexual violence, and consent in the public spotlight.  One of those is the case of long-time USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar.  He was sentenced late last month to up to 175 years in prison for abusing young female gymnasts.  At least one of the women who gave a victim impact statement before his sentencing has written a letter in support of HB 2234.

Amanda Thomashow tells lawmakers she realized many of those Nassar assaulted didn’t know they were being abused, at least not at first, and trusted the doctor.

She writes, “more than anything I keep coming back to one particular question:  How can we prevent such a tragedy from happening ever again?  I have repeated this question in my head, over and over, searching for a way to save others from similar evils.  I know there are many answers and I know there is no easy solution when it comes to sexual assault.  However, I also know one thing with absolute certainty; we must add consent and sexual violence to basic sexual education curriculum.  We need to equip young people with knowledge to protect and empower them, and House Bill 2234 does just that.”

HB 2234 would expand Missouri law on what must be included in sex education materials so that they cover sexual harassment, sexual violence, and consent.  It would also seek to define those terms in relation to sex education.

It would define “consent” as, “a freely given agreement to the conduct at issue by a competent person. An expression of lack of consent through words or conduct means there is no consent. Lack of verbal or physical resistance or submission resulting from the use of force, threat of force, or placing another person in fear does not constitute consent. A current or previous dating or social or sexual relationship by itself or the manner of dress of the person involved with the accused in the conduct at issue shall not constitute consent.”

HB 2234 defines “sexual harassment” as, “uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical behavior of a sexual nature, especially by a person in authority toward a subordinate,” and defines “sexual violence” as, “causing or attempting to cause another to engage involuntarily in any sexual act by force, threat of force, duress, or without that person’s consent.”

Missouri school districts are not required to have sexual education as part of their curriculum.  The bill would require that these new areas be included for those that do.

Rehder said she looks at the issue not just as a legislator but as a mother of three.

“I think that’s the prism that we need to look at it through – what would we want for our children?  What do we want them to know and be prepared for before they go into college,” said Rehder.  “Or not college – before they go into the workplace and you have people over you.  I think that these are just very important things to know before you’re thrown out into the world.”

The hearing on HB 2234 is Tuesday at 5 p.m. in House Hearing Room 7 in the Missouri State Capitol basement.

Additional audio:

Representative Rehder said she wants students to learn how to protect themselves and to respect others:

“I want them to know some clear cut signals and how to make those clear cut signals.  I think it makes a lot of sense.  I think it’s a small – doesn’t cost the state anything but could do a world of good.”