Robert Gehrke: In a mind-boggling vote to allow DIY rape kits, Utah’s Republican legislators condoned exploiting victims

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke.

Over the past several years, Utah has taken significant steps toward bolstering the support available to survivors of rape and sexual violence.

That includes ensuring rape kits aren’t left sitting on shelves, increasing training for first responders and the nurses who interact with victims, expanding support and mental health services, and advocacy as cases progress through the law enforcement system.

Even those who work in this area every day will acknowledge the system isn’t perfect and sometimes people are let down or frustrated with how they are treated, but it has improved and is getting better.

But an insidious new product — the “do-it-yourself rape kit” — threatens to undermine the efforts to get immediate help, support and justice for victims.

If you haven’t heard of these DIY kits, you’re probably not alone, but they are causing alarm among a broad swath of service providers, advocates and law enforcement across the country.

They are banned in New Hampshire and attorneys general in New York, Michigan, North Carolina and Oklahoma have sent cease-and-desist letters to the manufacturers.

This year, the Utah Legislature had an opportunity to join those states but a group of senators sided with the companies that have somehow managed to do the unthinkable and monetize survivors of rape.

In nearly two decades of covering the Utah Legislature, not much shocks me, but Wednesday’s vote to kill Rep. Angela Romero’s bill banning these pseudo-rape kits was simply jaw-dropping.

That’s due in part because the vote came after exhaustive testimony from groups that respond to acts of sexual violence — organizations that are almost never all on the same side of any issue — that these kits are not just inadequate but dangerous.

They discourage victims from getting qualified help, hinder law enforcement in finding and arresting assailants who might prey again, and make prosecuting offenders much more difficult, if not impossible.

After an attack, the health of the victim is the primary concern, but opting for an at-home kit means that individual won’t see a doctor for injuries and won’t be offered the medications to prevent HIV or pregnancy, commonly administered after an assault.

The individual won’t be offered counseling and crisis support from trained professionals.

The injuries inflicted won’t be thoroughly documented so they can be used as evidence.

In fact, nothing collected with one of these at-home kits — which essentially consist of swabs to collect DNA evidence and a plastic bag for any clothing that might be relevant — is ever likely to be admissible in a court in Utah because there is not a “chain of custody,” showing the samples were properly collected and protected throughout the testing process.

That is why you had the Statewide Association of Prosecutors and the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s office in rare agreement with the Salt Lake Legal Defenders Association and longtime criminal defense lawyers that these kits were not just useless, they were detrimental to the process and harmful to the victims.

“What they’re purchasing is little more than a trick in a box,” said Deputy Salt Lake District Attorney Will Carlson.

The notion of DIY rape examinations, said Mark Moffat, a defense lawyer for three decades, is “patently absurd and preposterous.”

“That evidence may be contaminated forever,” he said. “The market for these products is going to do far more harm to rape victims than it is ever going to do good.”

The state’s police chiefs, sheriffs association and the Law Enforcement Legislative Committee — representing law enforcement entities statewide — agreed.

“It provides false hope to the victim that what they collected can be used to prove criminality,” said Nate Mutter, assistant chief of investigations at the Utah Attorney General’s office.

Survivor advocates were equally categorical.

“We truly feel this would re-victimize victims,” said Julie Valentine, an associate dean at Brigham Young University’s College of Nursing and a member of Wasatch Forensic Nurses.

Laurieann Thorpe, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Utah, asked what’s next. DIY burglary kits? DIY homicide kits? “It is absurd,” she said.

Opposing the bill, as you might have guessed, were representatives of a company that is designing one of these DIY kits. Another company that had sold a similar product on Amazon has since stopped marketing its kit.

There also were survivors of sexual assault who told of how they felt mistreated and ignored when they tried to go through normal channels after their assaults. And we need to acknowledge they are right. There is a reason that upward of 85% of assaults go unreported and part of that has to be a system that is perceived to be unwieldy, unresponsive or indifferent.

But permitting these vulture capitalists to exacerbate, amplify and exploit those fears is the wrong way to go.

“I know our system is broken. I know we don’t do justice for every victim. I do everything I can to fight and make our system work better,” said Alexandra Meritt, a victim advocate. But, she added, “We are setting our victims up for harm by establishing these kits for profit.”

Presented with the insight from experts across the gamut and warnings of the harm these kits would do, Republican senators balked. Senate Majority Leader Evan Vickers said he was loathe to ban a product. Sen. Michael Kennedy, a doctor, said he thought there was room for collaboration.

They and three other Republicans effectively killed the bill this session and in doing so put profits before people and condoned a dangerous practice that only exists to make a dollar off of victims of horrific crimes.