One Kentucky nonprofit is working to ensure that victims of sexual assault are more likely to see justice served, while another organization is helping those fleeing domestic violence situations secure the financial resources they need to stay safe.
Representatives from the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs and the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence appeared on KET’s Connections to discuss their work and several of their legislative priorities for the 2017 General Assembly session.
Bringing Perpetrators to Justice
A 2015 investigation by the Kentucky Auditor’s office found that the state police crime lab had not processed more than 3,000 “rape kits” that law enforcement agencies use to collect DNA evidence from sexual assault victims. Without such processing, valuable evidence that could be used to identify perpetrators of sex crimes was left to collect dust in storage rooms of state and local police agencies across the commonwealth.
Eileen Recktenwald, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, says part of the problem is that there is only one facility in the commonwealth that does DNA testing. She says the Kentucky State Police crime lab in Frankfort simply didn’t have the staff or funding to address the stockpile of unprocessed kits, some of which date back to the 1970s.
“Each kit represents a person who was not really aware most of the time that their kit wasn’t tested, they just knew nothing happened,” Recktenwald says. “Hopefully they will get justice now.”
Legislation passed in 2016 seeks to address many of the problems that created that backlog. Senate Bill 63 requires all local police departments to submit rape kits to Frankfort for testing, and calls upon KSP to reduce the processing window down to 90 days by 2018, and to 60 days by 2020. Recktenwald says the current wait time for processing can be as long as nine months.
But getting the old kits tested is only part of the process. Recktenwald says police will then have to track down the victims to see if they still want to proceed with an investigation. Because some of the kits are so old, she says victim contact information may no longer be valid. And some victims may decide they simply don’t want revisit the trauma they experienced by opening an investigation.
Recktenwald’s organization also helps to train nurses to collect DNA evidence from victims. She says more hospitals need to have Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) on duty or on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But she says only three hospitals in the state are SANE-ready so far.
On the law enforcement side, the association shares scientific research with police agencies to improve how they interact with sexual assault victims. Recktenwald says new research shows that rape and sexual trauma alters a victim’s brain chemistry, which can make it difficult for them to recall details of their assault. She says police investigators who don’t understand that can be frustrated when they talk with victims.
“They were trained to interview a victim similar to the way that they interview a suspect,” Recktenwald says. “My hope is now that they have the information, they will work with a victim in a very different way.”
In the coming legislative session, Recktenwald says her organization will push for a constitutional amendment that would create a victim’s bill of rights. They also want to extend the statute of limitations for civil cases brought by sexual assault victims from one year to five years.
Financial Support for Domestic Violence Victims
About a third of all women will be victims of domestic abuse at some point in their lifetimes, according to Mary O’Doherty, deputy director of the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence. But the issue isn’t limited to just females: She says one in five men will also experience domestic violence.
When those victims decide to leave an abusive relationship, they run the very real risks of physical retaliation by their abusers. The also frequently face the challenges of finding a safe place to live and money to support themselves and their children.
The KCADV helps those who have escaped a domestic violence situation with emergency and longer-term financial assistance as well as housing.
“With survivors, often becoming economically independent is the most important way that they can move away from their relationship,” says O’Doherty. “That’s why we have such a huge focus on it.”
O’Doherty says the coalition helps victims save money to buy a home, start a small business, or further their education. For every dollar the victim saves, the coalition will match it with $4. Because transportation is often an issue, especially for those in rural areas, the coalition also offers a one-to-one matching program for car purchases, and emergency assistance for car repairs.
“When that car breaks down, instead of missing work because you can’t get to work, we help them get that car fixed quickly so that they can continue to work and have a good income for their families,” O’Doherty says.
Other economic assistance the KCADV provides includes no-interest loans on amounts up to $500, financial literacy classes, and free tax preparation. These services are provided through the coalition’s 15 member programs across the commonwealth and through a partnership with the Kentucky Community and Technical College System.
The coalition hopes to raise $15,000 through a partnership with the Allstate Foundation. The Purple Purse Challenge allows individuals to make modest donations directly to KCADV’s emergency services fund.
Because housing is such a challenge for survivors, the coalition also provides women and their families with safe places to live. KCADV also lobbied the Kentucky General Assembly this year for legislation that would prohibit landlords from denying rental housing to women who have protective orders. It would also allow victims with long-term protective orders to break a lease agreement with a 30-day notice without fear of ruining their credit and rental histories.
O’Doherty says the bill had the backing of the Kentucky Association of Realtors and the Apartment Association of Kentucky. It passed the state House on a 90-3 vote but failed in the Senate. She says the coalition will try to revive the legislation in the 2017 session.