Here's What Happens When You Report A Sexual Assault In Los Angeles

LASD demonstrates a sample rape kit. (Michelle Faust Raghavan)

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LADYist has heard your questions about sexual assault and what happens afterwards.

One thing is clear: Many women don't know what a rape kit is.

A "rape kit" is a group of bags and envelopes filled with evidence collected from your clothes and body during an exam by a forensic nurse, and also a series of paper forms and photographs.

"A big thing for patients to know about the sexual assault forensic exams is that these are completely voluntary," said Joy Hardt, president of the Southern California chapter of the International Association of Forensic Nurses.

"They cannot be forced to do this exam by anyone. It has to be consented to on the patient's part, and they can always withdraw their consent anytime," she added.

Hardt recognizes that the exam can be traumatizing.

"One of the biggest things that we can do to help make this less of a traumatic experience for them [is by] making sure they feel supported and that they are in control," she said.

The Los Angeles Police Department has responded to 1,019 reported rapes so far this year.

According to the Rape Abuse Incest National Network, only 230 of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police. Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, Chair of Gender Studies at USC, said the underreporting is part of the reason many women don't know exactly what a rape kit entails.

"People don't understand the process, because they're not actually hearing from either friends or family, or even out on social media, what exactly is involved when you make a report of sexual assault or rape," she said.


Click here to jump to sexual assault resources at the end of the story.

"SOME INJURIES ARE NOT IMMEDIATELY VISIBLE"

Here are your reporting options in the moments immediately after a sexual assault: go to the police, go to a doctor, go to an emergency room, or go directly to a Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) center.

"It's important to remember that if you tell a medical professional in the emergency room or in a clinic [about a sexual assault], those people are obligated by law to report the crime to police," said Melinda Wheeler, a forensic nurse and the owner of Forensic Nurse Specialists, Inc.

Once police respond, it's up to you if you want to file a report or undergo a forensic exam.

State law requires that police give you a card describing your rights and take you to a SART center for the exam — many of them are located at hospitals. In the L.A. Area, 13 of these centers handle adult cases and 15 work with children.

Under the federal Violence Against Women Act, you can have a forensic exam without filing a police report. The rape kit won't be tested, but it can be held for testing if you choose to press charges at a later date.

Ilsa Knecht, the policy and advocacy director for the Joyful Heart Foundation, encourages anyone in that situation to seek out a medical forensic exam, because it includes medical care to treat any injuries and to prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.

"Some injuries are not immediately visible to the untrained eye," said Knecht.

A LOT OF TALKING, THEN A FULL BODY EXAM

The process starts with talking, and a victims advocate can be present throughout the process.

A forensic nurse will ask about what happened and get information about your medical history. They'll need that information for any possible court testimony they might provide.

After what can be an hour or more of talking, there is usually a physical exam.

"The physical exam is a head-to-toe exam," said Hardt. "We look all over their skin for any marks, any injuries, anything that we see, any substances that might be on their skin."

The nurse may ask the patient to undress over a drop cloth to catch any evidence that might fall. Often, their clothes are collected for evidence.

There may be photographs taken. The nurse may go over the skin with a fluorescent light to look for bodily fluids. They may comb pubic hair or swab genitals without hair.

"We collect swabs from head to toe, depending on what happened to the patient," Hardt said.

With consent, there may be an internal exam of the vagina and rectum, including the collection of any semen or bodily fluids.

The forensic nurse also takes blood and urine samples.

Finally, the nurse will provide treatment for injuries and medicine to prevent pregnancy and STDs.

The whole process can take two or more hours.

(Michelle Faust Raghavan/LAist)

THE SOONER THE BETTER — EVEN IF YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT HAPPENED

When it comes to getting the medical exam for the rape kit, "certainly, the sooner the better," Hardt said.

"Every time someone takes a shower, every time someone changes their clothes, every time someone eats or drinks, depending on what happened to them, we are potentially losing evidence," she said.

Hardt said it's understandable why some people don't come in immediately and she still encourages people to come in even if they have waited.

Women who have been drugged and aren't sure what happened to them can also go through the process.

Wheeler suggests if you suspect you've been drugged, you can take your first urine in a clean container, refrigerate it and bring it to a SART center.

She said she often sees women who have been drugged request a forensic exam. Sometimes the forensic nurse can confirm whether there are injuries consistent with penetration.

Wheeler said her nurses' default position is to believe the victims.

For about a decade, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department has had a policy of testing every kit that comes to its lab. The lab processes kits for every police department in the county, except for the LAPD.

The crime lab's 45 criminalists process between 90 and 120 rape kits each month. Each one can take several days; the lab workers must be meticulous to ensure their work can stand up in court.

When DNA is found, the data is submitted to state and federal databases that can track and find serial rapists.

LASD demonstrates a sample rape kit. (Michelle Faust Raghavan/LAist)

YOU'VE HEARD ABOUT THE BACKLOG

Law enforcement in L.A. say the backlog in processing rape kits is getting better — but there isn't an official number yet.

A count of how many untested kits are still sitting in evidence lockers across the state is underway. By law, that backlog information is due by July 1, 2020.

The Joyful Heart Foundation's End the Backlog campaign estimates there are still 13,615 untested kits statewide. The organization was a co-sponsor of a bill on Governor Gavin Newsom's desk that would make testing rape kits mandatory in the state within 20 days of submission.

"The thing about the new [bill] is that unless there's a penalty, it's still kind of like an option," said Wheeler.

"When a survivor decides to go through [a forensic exam], they do that with the expectation that it's going to be tested," said Ilsa Knecht.

"THEY'RE WORRIED...THEY'RE GOING TO GET ON A ROLLER COASTER THEY CAN'T GET OFF"

Hardt thinks lack of knowledge about rape kits is why many people choose not to get a forensic exam. "They're worried... they're going to get on a roller coaster they can't get off," she said.

Again, you can stop the exam and withdraw your consent at anytime.

Another "one of the things that often is very daunting for survivors is the number of times they fear they will be forced to tell their story," said USC Professor Hancock Alfaro.

Experts say another reason is self-blame. "The impact of rape culture is that victims constantly feel that it's their fault," said Hancock Alfaro.

That can be reinforced by law enforcement if they're poorly trained in how to interact with a person who is traumatized, she said.

"So, when you say 'Why didn't you fight back?' you're implying to the survivor that they could have done something to avoid this situation," said Hancock Alfaro.

Another thing that can get in the way is travel, she said. For example, USC students are taken 12 miles away to the Santa Monica SART center.

"Just even mentally having to get in a car, that's all too much," said Hancock Alfaro.

Siri and Alexa can give you the number for the National Sexual Assault Hotline run by RAINN.

SEXUAL ASSAULT RESOURCES

If you need support after a sexual assault, here are more resources:

  • RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network) offers live online support in English and Spanish
  • RAINN also runs the National Sexual Assault hotline 800-656-HOPE (4673)
  • If you forget the number, Siri and Alexa can remind you.
  • Peace Over Violence runs local hotlines for L.A. and the West San Gabriel Valley.
  • The City of L.A. has more information about local resources here.

Correction: A previous version of this story said the forensic nurse can determine whether a rape happened. That determination is made by a jury. LAist regrets the error.