By Marielle Dent and Angela Shen
WASHINGTON – Mariska Hargitay, who plays detective Olivia Benson on the NBC drama “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” joined lawmakers from both sides of the aisle Friday in Washington to advocate for an end to the nationwide rape-kit backlog crisis.
Hargitay testified with prosecutors, experts and a sexual-assault survivor before the inaugural session of the Bipartisan Task Force to End Sexual Violence. The task force, which launched in April, intends to advocate for a legislative agenda addressing primary policy issues related to sexual violence.
Among those policy initiatives is an effort to reduce the hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits that have accumulated in police evidence lockers since the early 2000s.
“These are people’s lives sitting on a shelf … people’s lives getting derailed,” said Hargitay, who founded the Joyful Heart Foundation, which aids sexual assault survivors.
“We need to talk about what rape is. Just because someone knows the person doesn’t mean they weren’t raped,” she said.
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), who is chairing the task force with Reps. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), David Joyce (R-Ohio) and Patrick Meehan (R-Pa.), said law enforcement officials “would never let the DNA of a murder case sit on a shelf, yet it’s common to let sexual assault kits sit on a shelf.”
“There is no clearer demonstration of our country’s lack of regard of sexual assault victims than the backlog of rape kits… This is an injustice committed against women because they are women,” Speier said.
Females make up 91 percent of sexual-violence survivors, while males make up nine percent, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. However, males are less likely to report incidents than their female counterparts.
Jenifer Markowitz, a physician with the International Association of Forensic Nurses, said communities need greater access to Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, along with funding and education.
“Sexual assault is a public healthcare issue,” Markowitz said.
Sexual-assault nurses specialize in collecting evidence and properly supporting survivors, who are often blamed for the trauma they experienced, said Lavinia Masters, a survivor and advocate for rape victims.
“How cruel are you? How insensitive are you? Don’t you understand what I’m going through?” said Masters, recalling her reaction to the lack of sympathy she received after her assault when she was 13 years old. “Victims shut down. They’re ashamed and we need to change how law enforcement talks to them.”
Michael O’Malley, the Cuyahoga County prosecutor in Ohio, pointed to his state as a model for addressing the rape-kit backlog. He recounted a case in 2007 where officials found that a serial rapist was responsible for 11 rape cases, leading them to wonder if many cases could be linked to one offender.
In the process, officials found a backlog of 6,700 untested kits and have since processed half with Department of Justice funding, O’Malley said.
To expedite apprehending offenders, he said anyone arrested with a felony offense should undergo a cheek swab test and the DNA recorded and cross-referenced against existing evidence.
Several lawmakers said they will meet with police chiefs in their districts to discuss how to better address sexual assault and gauge how important solving the problem is to them.
Future task-force hearings will discuss access and funding plans, the lawmakers said.
“The funding is critical,” Masters said. “You can’t do any of this without funding.”