Utah critics oppose do-it-yourself rape evidence kits

(Photo courtesy of Julie Valentine) PRESERVEkit, an at-home, DIY sexual assault kit, pictured next to a Utah state sexual assault evidence collection kit.

These new at-home sexual assault evidence kits cost money. They don’t tell victims about nearby support services that can help with trauma. And they don’t connect survivors with health care they may need, from injuries to screening for infections.

The founders of the PRESERVEkit and the MeToo Kit say they do provide an option for those who don’t want to go to law enforcement or a hospital after an assault. “We believe this product has the potential to empower survivors and preserve time-sensitive DNA evidence,” said Madison Campbell, co-founder and CEO of MeToo Kits Company, in a Thursday email.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill disagrees — warning it’s unlikely that evidence collected with do-it-yourself kits will be admitted in court, or will have the credibility of material gathered by professionals during forensic sexual assault exams, which are free in Utah. He and Utah victim advocates are joining others across the country in warning people not to use the products, which they argue are “exploitive” and “misleading.”

“It’s profiting off somebody’s injuries," Gill said. "It’s profiting off somebody’s trauma.” He added: "Anytime you monetize what is otherwise a free service, I’m always concerned about what the motivation is.”

This week, the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Rape Recovery Center and Wasatch Forensic Nurses joined national groups in issuing statements opposing the at-home kits. Michigan’s attorney general sent a cease and desist letter Aug. 29 to MeToo Kits Company.

The company has a university pilot program listed on its website, and Brigham Young University has been approached about using them. But spokeswoman Carri Jenkins said it has “no interest in utilizing or in any way promoting these kits.”

The Center for Student Wellness at the University of Utah agrees that sexual assault survivors should be empowered to “navigate their own path of healing and justice,” assistant director Ellie Goldberg said in a statement.

But, she added: “We are concerned that these kits are misleading and exploitive in their efforts to offer survivors a different option to gain control after a traumatizing experience such as sexual assault.”

PRESERVEkits from the New Jersey company are available for $29.95 through Amazon. MeToo Kits do not yet have a set price, because the New York company is continuing to develop the product and hasn’t shipped or sold any, Campbell said.

The idea for the MeToo kits came from her own experience, Campbell said. After she was sexually assaulted on a college campus, she wrote in her email, she “did not even want to touch myself — let alone let anyone touch by body or console me.”

She added: "We believe that it should be a survivor’s right to capture this evidence within the comfort of their own home.”

But the kits could be “counterproductive” for victims if their case goes to court, Gill said. Investigators create a documented chain of custody to make sure evidence is admissible, he said, and without that, material could become compromised and unusable.

A professional forensic sexual assault exam can take hours, as nurses collect evidence from throughout a person’s body and take multiple photos of any injury. The kits offer privacy and the chance for victims to control the process, the companies say.

But patients may stop a forensic exam at any point or decline a step, said Julie Valentine, a member of Wasatch Forensic Nurses and an associate professor at Brigham Young University College of Nursing.

“We give them lots of choices because our goal is to empower victims to help them feel a sense of control," Valentine said. " ... Choices that we give the victims are actually choices that will help them and ... preserve evidence correctly.”

Victims may need services for physical injuries, pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and emotional trauma, which sexual assault nurse examiners and victim advocates are trained to provide, Valentine said.

Both companies say they are only providing an alternative, not discouraging people from seeking medical treatment. And Campbell said she could not “disclose our on-going partnerships,” but said her company has been consulting with lawyers “about the chain of custody and admissibility standards."

The company also is developing “a proprietary tamper proof device” and an app with “barcode scanning, trusted timestamps, witness testimonials and video evidence,” according to Campbell.

And Jane Mason, the retired FBI special agent who is CEO of PRESERVEkit, said in a statement Thursday that the collection of evidence by a victim doesn’t automatically make it inadmissible.

PRESERVEkit does caution on its website that there is no guarantee that evidence collected with the kits will be admissible in court, and that “the highest quality evidence is obtained” through trained forensic professionals.

PRESERVEkit and MeToo Kit do not test the kits for customers. Instead, they encourage victims to take the evidence they collect to law enforcement or a university Title IX office.

With these cases, “you want to prevent sexual assault, but you also want to minimize false rape claims,” said Clayton Simms, a Salt Lake City criminal defense attorney.

The longer a person waits before going to police after being assaulted, the harder it becomes to track down witnesses and collect evidence, he said. If a person is also holding on to an at-home rape kit, there would be concerns about whether that evidence became contaminated if it was moved or touched, or if it was stored properly, he said.

“If your goal is to present this evidence and present it at trial later, you’re not really accomplishing your goal,” Clayton said.

Valentine noted that victims in Utah can have evidence collected in a professional exam and tested without being interviewed by law enforcement. Kits will be held for 20 years or until a victim decides to participate in a criminal investigation, she said.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo ) Julie Valentine, shown in 2016, said sexual assault nurse examiners are trained to provide help to victims beyond collecting evidence.

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.