**TRIGGER WARNING. This episode contains conversations about sexual violence, sexual assault, and abuse. If you are triggered or would like to talk to a confidential advocate, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800.656.4673***
Ilse Knecht is the director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation. The organization was created in 2004 by Mariska Hargitay, best known for playing Olivia Benson on Law & Order: SVU, after receiving thousands of emails from survivors sharing their stories of abuse. Ilse leads the Foundation’s End the Backlog initiative, which is at the forefront of identifying hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits across the country.
Listen to Jay and Ilse discuss Mariska’s inspiration to create Joyful Heart, why hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit on shelves, and their mission to get justice for victims of sexual assault.
Ilse Knecht is the director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation
Speaker 1: All Inclusive, a podcast on inclusion, innovation and social justice with Jay Ruderman.
Jay Ruderman: Hi, I’m Jay Ruderman, and this is All Inclusive. A podcast focused on inclusion, innovation and social justice. Mariska Hargitay is best known for playing Olivia Benson on Law and Order SVU. For the past [00:00:30] 23 seasons, she has dealt with topics on sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse in the United States. She’s also received thousands of emails from survivors sharing their stories of abuse after watching the show. In response, she created the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004. Their mission is to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, support survivor’s healing and end [00:01:00] the violence together.
Today, I’m speaking with Joyful Heart’s director of policy and advocacy, Ilse Knecht. She has spent 20 years invested in victim advocacy and is a nationally recognized expert on the rape kit backlog. She leads the foundations and the backlog campaign, which is at the forefront of untested rape kits across the country. Previously, she was at the National Center for Victims of Crime, [00:01:30] where she created the DNA Resource Center and led efforts to reform policies and practices related to testing rape kits. Ilse, welcome to All Inclusive.
Ilse Knecht: Thank you so much for having me really, really grateful to be here.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you. So Ilse, walk us through what happens when someone has been sexually assaulted? What do they do? Do they go to the police? Do they show up at the hospital? Just in a general sense, what happens at that point?
Ilse Knecht: Well, survivors have many [00:02:00] options after a sexual assault, they will choose the path that’s best for them. So only about a quarter will ever report the assault to law enforcement and three quarters of them unfortunately, don’t report to law enforcement and may never tell anyone. And those victims though, sometimes do find other ways to heal, the criminal justice system is not the only way for survivors to find a sense of justice or healing. [00:02:30] The quarter that do decide to interact with the criminal justice process often will show up at a hospital, they may call the police. And so survivors who go to the hospital can choose to have of a forensic examination done, medical forensic exam, that’s to collect evidence and also to attend to other needs such as injuries and emotional needs dealing with trauma after the assault.
And those survivors [00:03:00] in all states have another set of options at that point and they can decide either to have the evidence collected and go through an interview with law enforcement and basically enter the criminal justice system process, or they can have the evidence collected and then held for a certain period of time while they make a decision whether or not the criminal justice system path is the right thing for them. So it may be that in two weeks or two days or five years they feel that it’s the right time for them [00:03:30] to interact with the justice system, which by the way, is not an easy system to go through as a rape survivor and they may decide at that point to have their kit tested.
Jay Ruderman: So let’s dig into this a little bit more. Someone shows up at the hospital, they’ve just been the victim of a horrendous crime, is the doctor or nurse or whoever’s attending, are they mandated to offer them a rape kit examination?
Ilse Knecht: That’s actually different state by state. So some states have laws, Texas has [00:04:00] one of them that says, “If a survivor shows up at your hospital, you have to give the option of having a forensic exam there, even if you don’t have a trained examiner or to transport them to a center that does have a trained examiner.” And then there are quite a few other states that don’t have any laws around this. So a survivor may show up at a hospital that has no one trained to collect this evidence in a compassionate or competent way, they may wait hours and hours and hours while [00:04:30] they find somebody who might be able to do this exam or wants to do this exam and it’s a whole other process and in those scenarios.
Jay Ruderman: So I guess what you’re saying, someone gets out of medical school and they haven’t necessarily received the training how to deal with a victim of sexual assault?
Ilse Knecht: They may have had some brief training on how to work with sexual assault survivor and mention of the fact that there are evidence collection that needs to be done, but that’s very, very brief. [00:05:00] Many doctors have to open up the rape kit exam box and read the instructions while the survivor waits so it’s always better to have a trained examiner. They’re sexual assault nurse examiners or sexual assault forensic examiners that are trained not only to collect the evidence, they’re trained to testify in court and they’re also trained to respond to the trauma that the victim is experiencing. That’s sort of the model that we hope all victims have an option to access.
Jay Ruderman: [00:05:30] And I assume that all states have a rape kit.
Ilse Knecht: Yes.
Jay Ruderman: It’s available in every state that even if the hospital itself where the victim shows up, they can be pointed to some place in the state where this process can be done.
Ilse Knecht: That’s correct. There are many kinds of rape kits, so some states have one kind of rape kit they use statewide and they’re just much more organized about the fact that there’s one kit and everybody uses it. And then there are other states that have many, many different kinds of kits they use, some are more updated than others.
Jay Ruderman: [00:06:00] Okay. So without getting too graphic, I understand that it’s a very invasive process, that someone is a victim of a sexual assault, they come into a hospital, they say, “I’ve just been assaulted.” At some point someone says, “You have the opportunity to be examined.” What does this process look like?
Ilse Knecht: It’s a process that can take generally about four to six hours, but it could take even longer depending on the nature of the attack. I think what’s really important to remember here is that what a survivor has just gone [00:06:30] through is probably the most traumatic experience, most personally invasive experience they’ll ever have in their lifetime. They go to a hospital, a stranger is going to ask them to undress and stand on a sheet so that fibers or any other kinds of hairs from the offender might be able to fall onto the sheet. They’re going to photograph them. They’re going to swab parts of their bodies based on the sort of story of the assault that the survivor has given, the recounting of the assault, which [00:07:00] of course is also very traumatic.
And then their body will be swabbed in those areas, basically their bodies become a crime scene. There’s an internal exam as well for internal injuries and lots and lots of documentation. The process involves a lot of questions about personal experiences beyond this sexual assault about consensual partners in the last so many days and things like that. So it is a very personally invasive procedure, it’s uncomfortable, [00:07:30] really be re-traumatizing if it’s not done in the right way.
Jay Ruderman: And I assume that not every survivor has an advocate there with them at this point.
Ilse Knecht: That’s right. There are quite a few states that have laws that allow survivors to have an advocate present during a forensic exam, that’s something that we also work on is just ensuring that survivors’ rights legislation includes the fact that they are able to have somebody present during the examination, somebody there just for them. [00:08:00] When there is a trained medical examiner who is doing this examination, they are also trained to call the local rape crisis center and that advocate will then come in. But if you’re not having an exam done by a trained examiner, that person probably isn’t going to call the local rape crisis center. But in many, many cases, survivors have a right to have someone present with them.
Jay Ruderman: And can you walk me through what happens with the rape kit after the exam? And I know we’re going to get into this a little bit later, but why would [00:08:30] it end up sitting on a shelf?
Ilse Knecht: Let me tell you what should happen.
Jay Ruderman: Okay.
Ilse Knecht: So what should happen is that the exam is completed. The hospital contacts the local law enforcement agency and law enforcement comes and picks up the kit very quickly. The kit is then booked into evidence, sent to whatever local lab or state lab is responsible for testing crime evidence for that jurisdiction. And then the lab handles that quickly, it’s done expeditiously, [00:09:00] it’s tested if a foreign DNA profile from a possible offender is found in the kit, it’s entered into state local and the federal DNA databases to see if there’s a match and to see if they can identify an offender, that’s what should happen.
What often happens is that the hospital calls law enforcement and says, “We have this kit, please come pick it up.” Sometimes they don’t come pick it up, and we’ve seen places where there have been kits sitting at hospitals for years and decades. [00:09:30] More often, law enforcement do pick up the kits, but they get stuck at the law enforcement agency. And the vast majority of kits end up on a shelf in a storage unit and they sit there for years or decades. Unfortunately, all too common and that’s why we have the untested rape kit backlog of hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits is because law enforcement has not sent them forward for testing at the crime lab. Basically they sit on shelves and are just locked behind closed door, completely [00:10:00] neglected.
Jay Ruderman: Which is a tremendous injustice. I used to be a prosecutor many decades ago before DNA was being used to the extent that it’s used today. I know crimes of sexual assault can be very difficult to prosecute because it used to come down to one person’s word against the other, but let’s talk a little bit about the police and law enforcement.
Ilse Knecht: Okay.
Jay Ruderman: What is the education? And is there any [00:10:30] uniformity across law enforcement as to how to interact with victims of sexual assault and how seriously to take what they’re bringing forward to the police?
Ilse Knecht: So you hit the nail on the head with the priority issue. In terms of training of law enforcement and how to handle sexual assault and to work with sexual assault survivors, there’s a real lack of training and a lack of knowledge about trauma and how it [00:11:00] impacts survivors and their memory, DNA and how important DNA and DNA databases are in solving sexual assault crimes and just in general, how to complete a competent and thorough investigation for a sexual assault case.
So I know that here in New York City, I’ve looked at the training manuals, I’ve looked at the agenda for training folks who are not specialized or sex crimes detectives are getting maybe four hours of it. But those who are, are getting more training, [00:11:30] but the training has not kind of kept up with what we know about sexual assault and what we know about trauma and how it impacts victims. So for example, the neurobiology of trauma has become a field that is more and more widely known.
What’s been found is that trauma impacts a survivor’s brain in a way that causes it to not encode the memories of the assault in the same way that we would just encode a normal memory, [00:12:00] walking down the street. The hormones that flood the body during the assault and after interferes with the ability of the brain to create a very clear memory of what happened. And so when law enforcement is interviewing sexual assault survivors, they don’t understand that sometimes the memories don’t come out in a linear fashion, that time, place, date, which is what law enforcement want to know is not how survivors are remembering the assault.
So when a survivor might say something to the effect of [00:12:30] it was a blue car, and then maybe a couple of hours later says it was green, that will come across to an untrained detective as lying, that the survivor is not telling the truth and that’s a misunderstanding about the way trauma impacts memory. When you talk to survivors after an assault, there will be lots of inconsistencies in their story and that is completely normal. And so unfortunately what we hear too often is, “Victim wasn’t telling the truth, victim [00:13:00] was lying, she couldn’t even remember this, she couldn’t remember that.” case closed basically before investigation opened. So that is a major, major problem with how law enforcement interacts with sexual assault survivors and understands trauma.
Jay Ruderman: So is that the crux of the matter? Is that why many rape kits end up sitting on the shelf because the detective or law enforcement has decided there’s not enough to go forward on this case?
Ilse Knecht: Yes. That’s one piece of [00:13:30] it. One of the larger kind of issues is that in many states, and this is changing but even six years ago, most states did not have a law or policy about what’s supposed to happen with this evidence. An individual detective at whatever department is making a decision about what to do with rape kit evidence. And it came down to how much do they know about rape? How much do they know about DNA and DNA databases? Did they believe the survivor? Rape myths are all too prevalent, victim [00:14:00] blaming all too prevalent still in our society. And if you have somebody who’s untrained to look at this from a much more kind of almost clinical and informed, knowledgeable state, they’re going to bring that bias and prejudice to this decision.
And then you put a woman of color, you put somebody who may be living on the margins of society, a homeless person, or what some police call, known to the department, somebody who’s been in and out of drugs [00:14:30] and other sort of trouble with law enforcement, immediately the decision is not to believe that person. They’re sized up based on all these other factors besides a thorough, complete investigation.
Jay Ruderman: Right.
Ilse Knecht: So the law not having any kind of policy that says your bias doesn’t matter here, we’re going to send this kit for testing no matter what you think, because unfortunately, I guess we’ll get into this later, there have been many, many horrific [00:15:00] mistakes made when detective makes their own decision based on their own prejudice about testing a kit.
Jay Ruderman: Right. And I remember from my time as a prosecutor, every city in town has a different police department, and they’re all different. And even within departments, you have some detectives who are great at what they do and take their job very seriously and you have some who don’t. So this whole hodgepodge going throughout the country, and I completely get what you’re saying [00:15:30] that there’s no uniformity.
Ilse Knecht: Right. And just throwing on top of that, the fact that in some places there aren’t even sex crimes detectives, there are people who are not even trained specifically to deal with this. There are no sex crimes units, or they’re severely underfunded. So even when you have a unit where you have trained detectives, we still see really shoddy outcomes, unfortunately.
Jay Ruderman: So if in a perfect world, all of the backlog of rape kits were tested, what would happen at [00:16:00] that point? Would you have that many more convictions, that much more closure in terms of helping victims move on from their trauma?
Ilse Knecht: Absolutely. There are two pieces to this. One is obviously getting justice and answers for victims and then they’re also taking dangerous offenders off the streets. And what we have seen from communities like Detroit, like Cleveland, like Memphis, even smaller cities like Duluth, Minnesota, is that they have taken these old rape [00:16:30] kits, some from the ’80s and ’90s off the shelves and tested them. And they have found dangerous serial offenders who have been operating with impunity for decades. And not only do we see crimes that could have been solved had a rape kit been tested, we see preventable crimes.
And that’s the next horrifying level of this work, because we can go back in time, we can look at these timelines and we can see [00:17:00] crimes that would’ve been prevented if somebody would’ve sent that rape kit for testing, if that victim had been believed and the evidence had been processed. So if we took all the kits off the shelves right now across the country, these communities would be a much, much safer place.
Jay Ruderman: And just to give us an idea, how many rape kits are sitting on shelves across the United States?
Ilse Knecht: We don’t really know the answer to that and that is because most states they’re getting better at this, have not tracked their rape kits. [00:17:30] So just to give you an example of how unimportant and deprioritized this issue is that we would talk to law enforcement agencies that would say, “We can’t give you a number because we don’t track those. We’d have to go back to some big notebook from whatever date and count them.” So just the sheer fact that most law enforcement agencies are not paying attention about how many kits they have coming in are going out. We estimate hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits right now and we [00:18:00] are actually in the middle of doing a national count because we have data on almost every state right now, but I would still say hundreds of thousands are still sitting out there on shelves, waiting to be tested.
For example, we had an inventory in California that we helped with that legislation and they counted more than 13,000, but a very large majority of the law enforcement agencies and state did not send their numbers in. So we’re just looking at even a state like California potentially having 20,000, [00:18:30] the numbers just keep adding up and we’re making a dent in it, don’t get me wrong but there’s still far too many out there.
Jay Ruderman: So let’s talk about the medical examiner. The medical examiner has kits on their shelves. Why are they not allocating technicians to test them? Why are they sitting there?
Ilse Knecht: Generally it’s the state crime lab, it’s not the medical examiner. In New York city, the medical examiner is the agency that does the exams, but state crime labs or local county crime labs [00:19:00] are the agencies that generally are testing rape kits. I will say that once the kits get into lab, jurisdiction or into their queue, most of the time they will be tested, unless there’s some reason they can’t be tested because they’re not eligible for the database or some other reason, it’s not as much the kits that are in the lab that we’re as worried about, it’s the kits that never make it to the lab. So there are kits that are just sitting in law enforcement storage, sometimes in a refrigerator somewhere.
There was a case in North Carolina where there [00:19:30] was a rape kit sitting in a refrigerator next to somebody’s lunch and of course you’re not supposed to store kits like that, but just they’re kind of all over the place, but it’s really those kits that were deemed not important enough to even make it to the lab that is making up this backlog problem.
Jay Ruderman: So let’s go back to talking about the victims.
Ilse Knecht: Always, yes.
Jay Ruderman: Do they know what happens to their rape kit after it’s been done? Do they know it may be sitting on a shelf and it hasn’t been tested? And [00:20:00] the other question I have is like, how does this impact the mental health of a victim if they know or if they don’t know that this has not been tested?
Ilse Knecht: Yeah. This is such a crucial issue to Jay, most survivors leave the hospital never hear again about their rape kit. Many will never ask, some will ask and they’ll never get answers. I’ve talked to so many victims who’ve said, “I just figured they were testing it.” I mean, why would you collect evidence and not send it for testing? That’s what victims believe is happening, also [00:20:30] society believes that too. So one survivor said to me, “I blamed myself. I thought maybe I wasn’t a good enough witness or maybe I didn’t tell the nurse what I needed to tell her to get the right evidence.” all kinds of things. Of course the victims will often go back to blame themselves.
The ones that do hear about their kits tend to be better off on their healing journey. We actually did some research in 2016 [00:21:00] with survivors that we asked them questions around, what would you like to know about your rape kit? Would you like to be notified about your case? The vast majority of them said they felt that the rape kit belonged to them. Their body was a crime scene and part of it was collected and put in this box and that the information is central to their healing and their wellbeing and that not having information and not having access to it is actually harmful to them. So it was really clear to us that survivors want information and that having information is really important [00:21:30] to their healing journey.
Jay Ruderman: And I would imagine that some of them, like I read about a victim who became an advocate in Florida and actually helped pass some legislation in the Florida legislature to help remedy the situation. But I’m sure there are other victims who are just far too traumatized and want not to revisit this again because of the potential being retraumatized.
Ilse Knecht: Survivors will sometimes say that, “I just didn’t [00:22:00] want to think about it. I wanted to push it aside. I just wanted to kind of move on.” But what they will also say then is that, “I never did and it’s impossible to move on.” That, they think about it all the time. They wonder where their kit is or they wonder where the offender is. I’ve had so many survivors say, “I felt this burden because this person was still on the streets and I knew how dangerous they were and something I did or didn’t do…” they felt like maybe helped that person to escape justice. So survivors carry that [00:22:30] on their shoulders. Many survivors report only because they want to stop this person from hurting someone else.
Jay Ruderman: So let me just ask you what compelled Mariska Hargitay to start the Joyful Heart Foundation?
Ilse Knecht: As you may know, Mariska has been playing detective Olivia Benson on Law and Order Special Victims Unit for more than two decades. And when she started playing that role and was preparing for the role, she trained at a rape crisis [00:23:00] center, she was reading everything she could and the information that was in front of her was really opening her eyes to the statistics about this problem and the reality and the impact on survivors. And she says, “I’ve got fan mail.” But it wasn’t the normal kind of fan mail, it was letters from survivors saying, “I’ve never told anybody this, but this happened to me.” disclosing their stories of abuse for the first time.
And many were saying, ” [00:23:30] I wish I had a detective like you, I never got the compassion that your character shows survivors on TV.” And she just felt very compelled to do something about it and so her answer to these survivors was to create the joyful heart foundation in 2004, with the mission of helping survivors heal and reclaim joy in their lives. And today our mission is to transform society’s response to domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse, to support survivors [00:24:00] healing and end this violence. One of the things that really struck her was the rape kit backlog. So that’s something that we’ve been focused on for many years and is really a core of the work we’re doing now.
Jay Ruderman: So I’ve heard Mariska say that she wants to bring joy back into the lives of victims again, what does this look like for the foundation?
Ilse Knecht: The foundation originally was doing work on healing with survivors, [00:24:30] right? We had survivor retreats that addressed the trauma that survivors were experiencing in a kind of holistic manner and looking at different sort of healing modalities. In addition to traditional methods, what other things could help survivors heal and actually looking at the fact that research was showing that it wasn’t that healthy for people to tell their story over and over again. We kind of already knew that because we were trying to ensure that law enforcement and prosecutors were working together so survivors never had [00:25:00] to tell their story a thousand times, but that was something that started becoming more kind of known in the victim services field. And so looking at how to address trauma in a different way with yoga and movement and experiencing nature and so that was something that Joyful Heart worked on.
For many, many years we had healing retreats with survivors, and then we did some research with Georgetown University to look at how are these retreats? And so that research shows that survivors were coming out [00:25:30] of this kind of retreat better than they went in, let me put it that way in that they were definitely having good healing experiences. And then also we looked at those who are working with survivors and sort of the vicarious trauma that they experienced. Could be therapists, it could be a rape crisis center, counselors, it could be the nurses that we’ve spoken about, it could be law enforcement and looking at their trauma and helping them heal from that trauma.
And we worked with law enforcement in different communities [00:26:00] across the country and other stakeholders there to kind of teach them self care, how to not kind of take in and hold that trauma that they hear and they experience from their interaction with survivors, so that was a large part of what Joyful Heart was doing in the early days all with carrying sort of Mariska’s words of helping survivors reclaim joy in their lives.
Jay Ruderman: Well, I know that Mariska has really been an important advocate and has done the important work that [00:26:30] someone who has her celebrity we all expect would do, you also have spent 20 years invested in victim advocacy. Can you tell us how you got involved in this work?
Ilse Knecht: Sure. Without going into like my whole life story, I have to credit my mother for kind of instilling in me this passion to make things better for other people. And I was working in a women’s clinic [00:27:00] and had a good friend working there and she was abducted and murdered by serial offender, this was in Toledo, Ohio. Her name was [Samara L’Oak D. 00:27:10] and I was the last person to be with her and so I was very involved in the investigation and going to court and working with the prosecutors and having to testify. I saw things about the system that I thought were very damaging to the victims [00:27:30] and I just thought, “I want to do something about this.” And I ended up working at the National Center for Victims of Crime in DC for 16 years.
There is when I learned about the rape kit backlog and I remember exactly where I was sitting, I was reading an article and it was about a woman named Debbie Smith, who was the namesake of a federal law related to testing rape kits, a fantastic woman advocate and I just felt like, “Oh my God, my head’s going to explode, what is [00:28:00] going on here? How are these kits not being tested? This is absurd.” And so that just became my life’s work and worked on federal legislation and state legislation, National Center for Victims of Crime. I created the DNA Resource Center there, looking at using DNA in all kinds of crime, maximizing the potential of DNA and trafficking cases and burglary cases and all missing persons cases, but I was always really focused on the rape kit backlog. And then I came to Joyful Heart [00:28:30] six years ago and really was able to hone in specifically on accountability for law enforcement and other parts of the system around making sure that rape kits are tested.
Jay Ruderman: Well, I have to give you a lot of credit. I spent several years in the domestic violence unit in the district attorney’s office that I worked in on the North Shore, Massachusetts and it is a grueling process and you see some success, but you often [00:29:00] don’t see success. And to spend 20 years dedicated to this is, is really God’s work so I give you all the credit for that. And you’ve had some tremendous success.
Ilse Knecht: Yes.
Jay Ruderman: I want to sort of switch to the Freedom of Information Act and how that may have been able to support victims’ rights to access information about the rape kits. Can you talk about that?
Ilse Knecht: Well, the Joyful Heart Foundation has a project called the Accountability Project, and we [00:29:30] have been using this tool across the country to shine a light on the number of untested kits. This is one of the tools we’re using to try to get law enforcement to go into their evidence rooms and count their kits and be public about it. So we’ve issued more than 65 across the country and we’re in the middle of about 20 more. And as so at the agency level, we’re sending these to law enforcement and Sheriff’s offices, sometimes prosecutors, sometimes [00:30:00] labs to try to find out what their numbers are.
We do that on behalf of survivors of those communities, survivors themselves can also use the FOIA process, it’s probably more effective if they try to do that with an agency that kind of helps represent them but it’s sunshine laws, it’s like sunshine’s the best disinfectant, right? So using this tool that’s available to us is something that we are relying heavily on. I will [00:30:30] tell you unfortunately, probably three quarters of the time we don’t get any responses or we get half responses or we are fighting back and forth for months and years with these agencies to get them to comply with the law.
Jay Ruderman: And is there advanced technology today that could sort of be more seamless in the way survivors can know what’s going on about the status of their kits?
Ilse Knecht: Yes, absolutely. When you order something on Amazon or even GrubHub, you can track your [00:31:00] food or your shoes everywhere it is, from this warehouse to that warehouse, to this stop and now it’s on the truck. And 10 years ago, those of us in the field were saying, “Well, you can certainly do that with a rape kit.” This is existing technology. Now, we don’t really think about it, but back then it was kind of the beginning of Amazon and tracking everything and so sort of the rape kit tracking system was born out of this thought and labs were already using some tracking software within their lab to [00:31:30] know where the kit is. This was bigger, this is a system that tracks it from the first collection site through to law enforcement picking it up, law enforcement getting it to their storage unit and again into the lab through the lab and then its final disposition.
So there are 33 states in DC that either have a tracking system or in the process of creating one, which is amazing. When I look back probably even six years ago and [00:32:00] there might have only been just a few states, it’s actually really transforming the field, moving forward all rape kits will be accounted for in these tracking systems. Actually, the only state right now that doesn’t have a victim portal is California, but we have a bill on the governor’s desk there to change that. But all of these systems besides California have a way for survivors to log in and look where their kit is.
And they can do that whenever they want to, at their convenience. They don’t have to pick up the phone and talk to someone [00:32:30] and tell them their whole story and they’re looking for their kit. They can do it in the middle of the night, they can do it 200 times a day, or they can do it once a month. And so it’s something that we’ve been really pushing is to make sure that these tracking systems have a way for survivors to log on anonymously and privately and get that information that’s so important to them.
Jay Ruderman: So it sounds like some progress is being made and hopefully the system will become a lot more efficient. I know this is done state by state, is there a rule for the federal government? [00:33:00] Can the administration help move this process forward?
Ilse Knecht: Yes. And the federal government has been very supportive of the rape kit reform work happening across the country. And Joyful Heart and our partners are engaged in the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative is a federal grant program that provides money to states and localities to count their kits [00:33:30] just to do an inventory and that can cost some money. If you haven’t been testing your kits for decades and you have 10,000 of them, that’s a little bit of a process to get through, to count them. So to count their kits, to finally get them off the shells and send them for testing and to also investigate and prosecute the cases that come out of testing these kits.
These are cold cases, those are more difficult as you probably know as a former prosecutor, those are going to be more difficult to investigate and to locate the victim and to locate the offender. [00:34:00] So [inaudible 00:34:01] for that, because also again, just testing the kit, if you don’t do anything with the information that comes out of that testing, it’s pretty meaningless. It’s really important to follow up with those cases and be aggressive about it. But then also to work with the survivors in those cases, what’s really important to remember is that for some survivors it’s been 20 years or more than they’ve ever had any contact with law enforcement about this case. So that contact can be very triggering and re-victimizing for them if not done in the right way.
Jay Ruderman: Sure.
Ilse Knecht: So [00:34:30] the sexual assault kit initiative program is much more kind of a holistic program that addresses the testing, prosecution, investigation and victim engagement. So the federal government is an investing in that every year around 45 million, the Biden administration has asked for that to be doubled, which is fantastic. We’d also like to see them support more, do some kind of work around pressing states to adopt our six pillar approach to rape kit reform. We’d like to find some [00:35:00] way to encourage states to get on board with the six pillar approach. And once they pass those six pillars, it really is a comprehensive reform of how the state handles their rape kits.
Jay Ruderman: Can you just briefly get into what the six pillars are?
Ilse Knecht: Yeah. So the first pillar is inventory, you obviously have to know how many rape kits you have before you can start dealing with them and where they are. So for example, in New Mexico, Albuquerque had the vast majority of kits so the resources are targeted in a different way if your kits are in mostly one city. [00:35:30] Inventory, making a commitment to testing them, finding the resources to test them and having the tenacity to go through it. It took Detroit more than 10 years to test their 10,000 kits.
Mandating the testing of all newly collected kits that are coming in within a certain timeframe, tracking, setting up a tracking system for rape kits, granting victims the right to know the status of their kit and state law and funding for all of these things. Of course, it all comes down in the end to making sure that states are making the investment in these [00:36:00] changes. We look at it as public safety as the top priority of government and this should be at the top of their list for their investment.
Jay Ruderman: So do these kits ever become stale? And do you deal with statute of limitations in different states where because the kit have not been tested for so long, the statute of limitations has run out and you can’t prosecute the crimes anymore anyway?
Ilse Knecht: Right. So there are two issues here. One is sort of how long can you hold kits and how do you get DNA [00:36:30] out of kits that are decades old? And the answer is yes, it’s been actually amazing to look at kind of the hardiness and tenacity of DNA. When you look at Detroit, they had these 10,000 rape kits that were sitting in a warehouse with open windows, half of the building was actually destroyed, had literally been bulldozed and windows and birds flying around. Detroit’s cold so it got very, very cold and it gets very, very hot in the summer. So they were taking rape kits off the shelf in Detroit and getting results [00:37:00] from these rape kits, so that’s pretty amazing.
Some cases from the ’70s have gotten usable DNA from them and so obviously they need to be stored correctly, but we have seen kind of amazing results from some of these cases that people thought, “Well, there’s no way that usable DNA is going to come from these kits.” The other side is the statute of limitations. And in some cases it’s 10 years, it might be 15, it’s different from [00:37:30] state to state. And first of all, is every reason to test kits that are beyond the statute of limitations, that is our policy, that is what we suggest because one really kind of big theme has come out of this work is that survivors want answers and justice means different things to different survivors.
It might not necessarily be that they want the criminal justice outcome of the offender going to prison, that for many is what they want, [00:38:00] but they do find justice sometimes just through the process. So if a case can’t be prosecuted, an offender can’t be brought to justice that way, sometimes for survivors it’s just knowing that the system cared enough to test the kit and then to contact them and say, “Hey, we found your offender, it’s this guy.” Number one, it’s who you thought it was or number two, here’s a name for you, so you finally know. And also, many of them are already in prison because they’re repeat offenders and so for a survivor to know that person’s in prison [00:38:30] is really going to give them a sense of peace of mind. Many survivors say, “I’m always looking over my shoulder.” And knowing they’re in prison, it’s just information that they really want to know.
They also have opportunities sometimes to go and give victim impact statements in other cases related to that offender. So they may be able to go in to parole hearing or to a sex offender hearing, so there’s so many paths, ways that survivors can actually also get little kind of nuggets of [00:39:00] healing through this process. And I’ve also seen prosecutors do kind of interesting things like, okay, there’s no statute of limitations on this sort of theft or whatever, and be able to charge that person with stealing $20, but not be able to charge them for the rape.
Jay Ruderman: Right.
Ilse Knecht: So it’s really important for those kits to be tested. And one last point is that again, because many of these offenders are serial offenders, those kits may connect to other kits and then you can see this [00:39:30] is one more case that is on this person’s rap sheet basically.
Jay Ruderman: So which states have done the best job at working through their backlog and which states still have a lot of work to do to get through the backlog of rape kits?
Ilse Knecht: Well, so we have more than 10 states that have adopted all the six pillars and they’re doing pretty well, but I will say, for example, Texas is one of them, that has all the six pillars on paper [00:40:00] that has had some trouble with the implementation of the laws, that’s kind of where we’re looking now. A lot of our work is looking at how are these laws being implemented and trying to hold the stakeholders accountable for that? So I’ll say one state that has done really well is Kentucky. They were very early in the reform process, they passed all the six pillars very early, they’ve got a wonderful state lab and the attorney general and the governor over periods have just been very involved in trying to [00:40:30] make changes.
We’re seeing some good things happen in Missouri, Michigan, Ohio has done really well. We’re working in several states right now that haven’t really done anything on paper, so like Rhode Island and Maine is one of them, Mississippi, a couple of states that we’d like to see some reform take place this year. And then most of the states are kind of in between, they have some things they’re doing, some reform, they may have gotten federal grants, but they’re not working legislatively, [00:41:00] so it’s kind of a patchwork quilt.
Jay Ruderman: So the Ruderman Family Foundation is based in Boston and I know that the Joyful Heart Foundation has done work in Massachusetts. How are we doing here in Massachusetts?
Ilse Knecht: We’ve been through an interesting journey with Massachusetts, I will say in the end, the sort of forecast is good. We were involved in a law in 2018, without getting into the nitty gritty, basically had [00:41:30] a loophole written into it that we were kind of unaware of that was able to be kind of taken advantage of. And we found out recently through our Freedom of Information Act requests and some very diligent reporters that there are about 6,000 untested kits that need to be tested in the state. And we recently went through the budget process and got some language in the budget process to fix that with some amazing lawmakers along the way and advocates of course.
So [00:42:00] I think Massachusetts is actually in a good place now, and I know that they have a 30 day testing turnaround timeframe for their new kits. And I’ve been told by several parties that that is happening and that Massachusetts is outsourcing some of their new kits to a private lab so that they can keep within that 30 days and that’s fantastic news. So I’m hopeful that Massachusetts is really coming around and is going to get into that kind of comprehensive reform state [00:42:30] soon.
Jay Ruderman: Great. I hope we live up to our ideals here.
Ilse Knecht: It’s been an interesting road.
Jay Ruderman: Yes, I’m sure. In 2019, Grey’s Anatomy became the first series of network television to have depicted what goes on into a rape kit. And the next year, Netflix Unbelievable came out and told the true story of a woman who was failed by the system when she was accused of lying about rape. Do you think that media and entertainment has [00:43:00] a responsibility in sharing these types of stories and does it help move the issue forward?
Ilse Knecht: Yes and yes, we’ve seen it I think time and time again with Law and Order: SVU of course, being very groundbreaking in that are arena, and I’m not just saying that because Mariska is my boss, but I think the more that the general public can see how this crime impacts survivors and what they have to go through after an assault, especially if they want to report [00:43:30] to police and have evidence collected, the trauma that they experience, I think it’s sort of almost person by person, just making sure that people are more open to understanding what happens with survivors.
I think the media can have a really big impact on what the general public thinks about these issues and also anger them and inspire them to action. You may know that Mariska produces documentary called I Am Evidence, which won an Emmy and was about [00:44:00] the backlog and followed the story of four survivors and what happened to them in their lives after their kits were collected and not tested. And we have just seen such an outpouring of people being inspired and even from advocates to legislators after seeing the film Take Action.
And so I think our hope is always that media will inspire people to take action and not just legislative action. It means if somebody tells you they’re a survivor that you believe them, that individual [00:44:30] moment is so important to survivors. Don’t ever underestimate the impact you can make in that person’s life by just saying, “I believe you and how can I help you?” And I hope that these TV shows and movies will show people that, that’s sometimes all it takes to really help a survivor heal and find joy.
Jay Ruderman: Yeah. I was just going to mention the I Am Evidence, which appeared on an HBO and Mariska and the Joyful Heart Foundation [00:45:00] has done tremendous work and you’ve been at the heart of that to really correct a wrong that’s been systematic in our country. Maybe you can leave us with a success story, a rape kit that was on the shelf for many years, but actually ended up in a prosecution.
Ilse Knecht: Oh my gosh, there are many which I’m glad to say, there are many, I think I want to mention a woman named Gail Gardner [00:45:30] who was in Florida. She’s a survivor who was sexually assaulted by a serial rapist and was not believed and her rape kit stayed on the shelf in Orlando Police Department for a long, long time. And it was recently tested and connected her assault to many, I think maybe more than 20 other victims. So her case is going through the system now. But what also has been amazing is to see Gail [00:46:00] kind of blossom. I didn’t know her before this, but she’s become an advocate. We worked on legislation in Florida named Gail’s Law, which created a rape kit tracking system. Every time they needed her in Tallahassee, she was up there, she was talking to the media, whatever she could do to get that passed.
And I’m not saying every survivor should do this, it’s not for everybody but just seeing how the sort of change in how her case was handled and feeling like finally the system was kind of responding [00:46:30] to her and taking her seriously, I think has been so healing for her. There are cases throughout this country… I don’t know, once a couple months I would get a story emailed to me or through some kind of alert system about a case being solved. But now, especially I think with this Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant program, it seems like almost every day I get a story about a case that was solved using the DNA database or other methods, [00:47:00] but just how important it is to know that this is happening and this rape kit testing and is making a huge difference in the lives of survivors.
There’s a lot of progress going on across this country and I think that it’s something that we kind of knew would happen, but we didn’t know what would happen at this level. We knew we could fix this, but I don’t think we really realized how much it would change people’s lives and even start changing the system. So [00:47:30] I think Gail’s story though is just such an amazing story and she’s a firecracker, she’s ready to go and willing to go for the next legislative session now.
Jay Ruderman: Thank you for sharing that. Finally, for those listening who want to help end the backlog, what steps can they do?
Ilse Knecht: Well, first they can go to endthebacklog.org and look at your state and see what pillars your state has worked on and what they’ve accomplished, and you can email your legislators [00:48:00] and your governor and your attorney general and talk to the media and kind of make noise about what is going on in your state. And we’re certainly willing to help you, you can contact us to kind of give you ideas and tips and tools on working with legislators, working with the media, and to start from the beginning just find out does your state know how many rape kits they have and are they testing them?
So I think it’s a combination of working [00:48:30] with media, working with legislators, even from your city council. You could go to your city council, let’s say your state hasn’t done much or has done a lot but still locally, a lot of local work is overlooked as how important it is and it really is important to find out. You could have a state law that says mandating kits is the policy, your local police department might be ignoring it so start local and just find out from your local legislators, what’s the policy here? What is happening [00:49:00] in my community?
Jay Ruderman: So helpful. Thank you so much, Ilse.
Ilse Knecht: I appreciate it. And one thing I want to just really quickly mention-
Jay Ruderman: Sure.
Ilse Knecht: … when we look at the cases that are being solved through testing these rape kits, communities are finding these serial offenders who are not just committing sexual assault, they’re committing all kinds of crime. And you look at their background, you look at even their rap sheets, they’ve been arrested over and over again for things like burglary, carjacking, [00:49:30] non-violent crimes. Many of them have domestic violence backgrounds, child abuse, just the gamut. So these are offenders who are impacting society as a whole.
And what we’ve also found coming out of Cleveland, the research that they did there is that testing rape kits actually saves communities money. And so when they tested 4,000 kits and they looked then at the crimes that they were solving [00:50:00] and the crimes that they were preventing and the impact on society and victims, they were saving $8,000 per kit.
Jay Ruderman: Wow.
Ilse Knecht: So there’s an investment on the front end to testing kits, but it will come back to you and it will save you money, but it’ll help create safer communities. So not only is this about individual survivors and getting them justice and healing, this is about preventing the next potential victim and also just making sure that our societies are just and a safe [00:50:30] place to live.
Jay Ruderman: Such an important point. I remember my time as a prosecutor, rarely did I prosecute someone who only had one thing on their rap sheet-
Ilse Knecht: Right.
Jay Ruderman: … so such an important point and a great way to end our conversation. It’s been a pleasure speaking to you, I learned so much.
Ilse Knecht: Oh, thank you so much.
Jay Ruderman: And I hope a lot of people will listen to this and will take action. So thank you so much for your time.
Ilse Knecht: Really appreciate it, Jay. Thank you.
Speaker 1: [00:51:00] All Inclusive is a production of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Our key mission is the full inclusion of people with disabilities in all aspects of society. You can find All Inclusive on Apple Podcast, Google Play, Spotify and Stitcher. To view the show notes, transcripts or to learn more, go to rudermanfoundation.org/allinclusive. Have an idea for a podcast, be sure to tweet @JayRuderman.