Sexual assault examination kit. (photo from Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance)
Ohio already tracks rape kits, but the House included a more robust system for keeping survivors informed. The Senate pulled it, arguing it should pass as a standalone bill.
The Ohio House put language in the state budget granting sexual assault survivors the “right to know” what’s happening with their rape kit and developments in their case. The state Senate pulled that provision out. Not because they oppose the idea, but because they contend it should advance as a standalone bill. The state has taken numerous steps to track kits already, they add.
But as budget negotiators prepare for what could be a long scuffle, advocates are working behind the scenes to get the proposal back into the finished product.
The right to know
Rep. Michele Grim, D-Toledo, submitted the budget amendment establishing the right to know. The language allows survivors to request updates about the testing of their kit including the date, results, whether they got a DNA profile and whether it matched one in the database, as well as the estimated date of destruction. Survivors can also request updates about the progress of their case, for instance if investigators decide to close or reopen it.
“Removing that provision, I think that’s really disheartening to a lot of survivors,” she said. “They need a sense of closure, they need to make sure that they have the right to know the status of their rape kits, and the status of where it is and making sure that it’s processed in a timely manner.”
“It’s a piece of them, you know?” Grim explained. “It’s something that, they feel like they own, because it’s a piece of them. It’s their DNA.”
Ohio has a tracking system for kits. But Grim said survivors need to know more than just where it is — they need to know where their case stands.
Thirty one states around the country have passed their own versions of right to know legislation, Ilse Knecht explained. The Joyful Heart Foundation policy and advocacy director heads up the organization’s effort to end the backlog of untested rape kits.
The organization tracks states according to six pillars relating to how states inventory and test kits as well as inform survivors. Ohio has five of those six covered. The only one missing? Legislation ensuring a survivor’s “right to know” about their kit and case.
Most survivors, Knecht said, leave the hospital having just gone through an intrusive, uncomfortable procedure right after a traumatic experience. And then they never hear what happened with their kit.
“Think about if you went in to get a test for cancer or something, right?” Knecht said. “And you left and you could never get a hold of anybody who will tell you what the result was. I mean, it’s a little different — that’s a life and death kind of your medical situation, but I think that survivors feel like that.”
In an emailed statement, Senate spokesman John Fortney explained why lawmakers removed the language.
“Determining the best practice is paramount to these cases and to finding justice for survivors,” he said. “That discussion would be better served by a thorough debate and discussion devoted to a stand-alone bill.”
Senate President Matt Huffman made a similar point while defending the inclusion of a higher-ed overhaul in the budget. He said lawmakers have looked to the budget as a vehicle for policy changes for years.
“And my answer to that, and I think when I was Speaker Pro Tem the answer in the House was, we’re not just going to put a bill in the budget, a piece of policy, because we don’t want to talk about it, or it’s easier than having lots of committee hearings and witnesses and things like that,” Huffman explained.
“Don’t just show up two weeks before the budget and say I got a good bill, throw it in there,” he added.
It’s worth noting the Senate’s budget maintains a $1 million earmark to fund kit testing and related expenses for local law enforcement. The Senate also included a modest increase beyond the governor and House’s proposal to double spending on rape crisis centers.
Carrying out the right to know changes would largely fall on the Attorney General’s office. The office didn’t request the changes in its budget request, and it already operates a kit tracking system.
Didn’t we just do this?
That tracking system comes from work that began under then-Attorney General Mike DeWine. As recently as 2018, Ohio had a backlog of untested rape kits that ran into the thousands. DeWine’s administration cleared that backlog, and Sen. Stephanie Kunze, R-Dublin, and Rep. Dorothy Pelanda, R-Marysville backed legislation directing the AG’s office to establish a tracking system.
The system allows survivors to use a unique reference number to track the path of their kit from law enforcement agency to testing lab and back. That puts the onus on survivors to track their kit rather than requiring agencies to inform survivors at their request.
Grim’s proposed changes also grant survivors more visibility into the investigative process.
And although Ohio cleared its backlog of untested kits, the fact that the state had one at all gives Grim pause. “We need to make sure that there isn’t that issue again,” she said. To that end, her amendment would also require an annual audit and summary report prepared by the Attorney General’s office.
The removal of the amendment is a setback, but Grim and Knecht say they’ll keep pushing for its inclusion in the final budget package.
“It definitely needs to go back (in) in conference committee,” Grim said. “It’s a really important provision.”
Follow OCJ Reporter Nick Evans on Twitter.