Reinvestigating Rape: Tips

In this tip sheet, Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter and 2008 Dart Award Winner Rachel Dissell offers advice for reporters on understanding forensic testing, crime laws, and how sexual violence can impact survivors and their communities. For the full report, click here. And click here for the Plain Dealer's Reinvestigating Rape project, reported by Dissell and her her colleague Leila Atassi.

When covering the issue of untested sexual assault evidence, a reporter must remember that the headlines aren’t just about numbers. Each rape kit represents a person who reported an attack and allowed evidence to be collected from his or her body. These stories are tough, and they require a reporter to understand forensic testing, crime laws, and how sexual violence impacts survivors and their communities.

We still don’t know how many survivors will be impacted.

The numbers of untested rape kits nationwide are estimates based mostly on data from a few larger cities, not statistics from suburban or rural departments. Try to get an accurate count of untested sexual assault evidence in your area. To do this, you will need to know when police started accepting kits, for how long the evidence is retained and what the testing policy has been. Some kits may have been only partially tested for blood and semen, and not for DNA. 

Testing impacts all survivors differently.

Just as people have different reactions following a sexual assault, they also react differently when learning of developments in their case. Some survivors are jubilant to learn that their case is being reopened, or relieved to finally know the name of their attacker. Others may have never told their family what happened before, or drastically changed their lifestyle following an attack. Remember, many sexual predators pick victims based on their vulnerabilities. So survivors you encounter may have been young when they were attacked, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or suffering from a mental illness. Many report being the victim of multiple sexual assaults.

Testing can re-traumatize survivors by dredging up the emotions and sensations they felt at the time of an attack. Reporters who talk to survivors should follow best practices for interviewing victims of sexual violence.

Remember, survivors are reading your stories.

Law enforcement agencies notify victims in different ways and at different stages of the kit testing process and investigation. But in many cases, victims are getting this life-altering news when an investigator knocks on their door or calls them on the phone.

In your stories, include how survivors can proactively get information about their case. Tell them how they can seek counseling or support. Talk to rape crisis center or other sexual assault advocates ahead of time to see if they will offer special services to these survivors. And ask whether counseling is being funded as part of any kit-testing initiative.

Understand serial patterns.

One thing rape kit testing is proving is that many more serial rapists were operating than those law enforcement officials were aware of. DNA hits involving multiple victims offer the chance to study the habits and patterns of those rapists and gain insight from hindsight with regard to how the cases were – or were not – originally investigated. For instance, police long thought that predators usually raped either family members and acquaintances – or strangers. Testing has shown that isn’t the case. 

Testing shows that rapists operated based on vulnerability and opportunity. The lack of real investigations in so many cases allowed many serial attackers to continue on for years. Early data from rape kit testing in Detroit and Cleveland indicates that between 20 and 30 percent of rape kits cases indicted are part of a serial pattern.

Good stories written now can change the future.

Shedding light on many of the aspects of current rape kit testing will shape how law enforcement will investigate sex crimes in the future, how the testing will be funded by policymakers and whether victims will receive compensation and counseling to help them heal.

Some law enforcement officials still disagree on whether all kits should be tested or if kits should only be processed in select cases, such as stranger rapes. While policy is being set at the state and local level, one thing is clear from testing initiatives in several cities: with testing, rapes could have been, and can still be, prevented.