Kym Worthy and Mariska Hargitay hold hands surrounded by contributors to the HBO film “I Am Evidence.”
By K. BARRETT BILALI
Special to South Florida Times
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A HBO documentary which aired Monday night has drawn greater attention to the national crisis of untested rape kits.
“I Am Evidence” was produced by Mariska Hargitay who is better known as Lt. Olivia Benson on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” The popular TV series highlights cases of sexual assault, domestic abuse and child molestation.
According to the film’s website, the documentary “exposes the alarming number of untested rape kits in the United States through a character-driven narrative, bringing much needed attention to the disturbing pattern of how the criminal justice system has historically treated sexual assault survivors.”
Nationwide, over 400,000 rape kits have not been tested.
Hargitay teams up with real-life prosecutor Kym Worthy of Wayne County, Michigan. Worthy has been a longtime activist in addressing the nearly 11,000 rape test kits which were untested in Detroit. These kits were discovered by one of Worthy’s assistants piled up in a storage facility used by the Detroit Police Department. Many, if not the majority of these untested rape kits, involved African American women.
Worthy personalized the discovery of these untested rape kits. The 61-year old African American woman was a victim of sexual assault when she was a law student at Notre Dame University.
So far, through the efforts of Worthy, 10,000 of the kits have been tested leading to the arrest and conviction of 127 rapists. In addition, 817 serial rapists have been identified and 1,947 cases are being investigated.
Worthy said she wants to inspire viewers of “I Am Evidence” to speak up and demand that legislators make a change. Florida lawmakers have heard the cry for change. A law was recently passed which mandates that rape evidence be processed and completed within 30 days of the alleged crime, said Nicole Bishop, Director of Palm Beach County Victim Services.
“This is one of the areas in which Florida is ahead of the rest of the country,” said Bishop. Florida is one of eight states which has written into law a timetable for completing rape tests.
“Locally we don’t have a big backlog. We have a local resource for testing kits,” Bishop said. The Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office does the testing locally. While other municipalities depend upon the State crime lab to provide the analysis.
In Broward County, the Nancy J. Cotterman Center is the only certified 24-hour rape crisis and children’s advocacy center. More than 4,000 victims were counseled in 2017 by sexual assault professionals as part of the first step to healing the trauma of rape and molestation.
This month, the center is reaching out to the community in a “We Believe You!” ad campaign to let local victims of sexual assault know their voices will be heard.
“Our approach is to reassure the sexual assault victim that it is never their fault, we understand and support them, and they don’t have to suffer in silence,” said Miriam Firpo-Jimemez. Director of the Nancy J Cotterman Center.
Back in 2016, over 13,400 test kits in Florida were sitting in police storage units collecting dust. At the time, it was estimated that the testing of all rape kits could take as long as three years to complete at the cost of millions to taxpayers.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi was the first to secure an initial $2.3 million dollars to test unprocessed sexual assault kits. So far, over 6,000 rape kits have been tested as of January of this year. The result of each test kit is input into the combined DNA index system or CODIS. This nationwide database assists police departments in catching serial rapists.
Some little known facts of sexual assault include the following:
• One in six women and one in 33 men will suffer attempted or completed rape in their lives.
• 82 percent of rapes involve a party known to the victim.
• 80 percent of victims are under the age 30.
• 68 percent of rapes go unreported to law enforcement.