Awareness Leads to More Rape Kits

By Beacon Staff

At a city budget work session on June 11, Kalispell city councilors learned that the Kalispell Police Department’s forensic analysis budget would need to increase to $8,000 for the next fiscal year, nearly doubling last year’s $4,500.

The reason? An increase in rape kits.

“There’s more of them than we’ve had in the past,” Kalispell City Attorney Charlie Harball said. “Not necessarily that there’s more rapes but there’s more reports.”

A forensic rape examination is an extensive exam performed by a doctor or other qualified medical personnel on a victim of sexual assault, and the evidence gathered in the examination is admissible in court.

The procedure is invasive and uncomfortable, Kalispell police Det. Michelle O’Neil said, and includes collecting DNA evidence through swabbing the body’s cavities, combing pubic hair and scraping under the victim’s fingernails.

With such an invasive procedure, it’s understandable that someone who was just violated might not want to partake, she said.

“It’s not a lot of fun,” O’Neil said.

As a detective who has worked with victims of sex crimes since 2004, O’Neil said she hasn’t seen a significant increase in sex assaults or rapes lately, but there has been more education among the public and law enforcement professionals about when a rape kit might be necessary.

The state recently declared that evidence collected 120 hours after a sexual assault can still be viable, up from the previous 72-hour deadline. And there’s been more education for officers responding to rape cases.

“We are running a lot more people up there for an exam on the possibility that we can get something,” O’Neil said.

Harball said the attitude among law enforcement is shifting away from officers questioning people who say they have been sexually assaulted and moving toward taking them directly to the hospital for an examination.

But the reporting rate for rape is still incredibly low by most accounts.

“Sometimes they’re so traumatized at that point they don’t want to talk to anyone,” O’Neil said. “They don’t want to deal with it.”

There is still help available for people in these situations. Montana’s Forensic Rape Examination Payment Program, established by the Legislature in 2005, allows someone who feels they have been victimized to go directly to the hospital and request an examination without going through a law enforcement agency.

The results of the rape kit are then sent to the Department of Justice and kept for one year before the evidence is destroyed, according to Holley Johnson, FREPP program specialist.

FREPP reimburses the hospital for the exam, with a maximum of $600. Even if the tests cost more than that, the hospital can only receive $600 and write off the rest, Johnson said.

Anyone wishing to partake in FREPP must request it up front and ask that their insurance not be billed, Johnson said. Any other injuries sustained in the attack are not covered under the program.

“To protect their anonymity, they don’t have to bill any other collateral source; they can use this program and after that the health care provider has to respect their wishes,” Johnson said.

If the person decides to press charges within that year, the evidence is sent to the local police, and that agency reimburses the state.

However, though the program was created in 2005, it has received only 234 rape kits from all over the state. Ten of those came from Flathead County, Johnson said, and roughly 10 percent of the kits received result in pressed charges. Unless the victim presses charges, these kits would not appear in law enforcement statistics.

Most of the evidence usually comes from college towns like Bozeman, Missoula and Billings, Johnson said, but the program gets kits from rural areas as well.

“I’ve noticed an increase in kits from Kalispell over the last year,” she said.

Brett Kelso, the coordinator of the multi-agency Flathead County Children’s Advocacy Center, said his organization hasn’t necessarily seen an increase in sexual assault exams for children – which are less invasive than those for adults – but they are able to get a few more of the tests completed each year.

It all comes down to educating the public on what resources are available if such a situation arises, Kelso he said.

“We try particularly with the children’s cases to do a lot more community awareness now about what we do and how we can assist in those cases,” Kelso said.

As for the Kalispell city budget, Harball, who at the time of the budget work session was the acting city manager, said it’s not a line item that will likely see any reduction.

“Bottom line of it: it just costs us more,” he said.

For more information on FREPP, visit www.doj.mt.gov or call 406-444-3653 or 1-800-498-6455. For more information on the Flathead County Children’s Advocacy Center, visit www.flatheadcountysheriff.com. To report abuse, call 1-866-820-5437.

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