Justice Talks—Forensic Nursing Science

Source: Julie L. Valentine PhD, RN
Justice Talks

Forensic nursing encompasses caring for individuals who suffer from sexual and physical violence. As forensic nursing professionals, we are asked many questions regarding outcomes for our patients. One primary question is, "What happens to their sexual assault kits?" The expectation is that the Sexual Assault Kits (SAKs) are submitted to the crime lab for processing but in reality, once a kit is received, no one tracks this information.

Finding answers on patient and case outcomes could be done through aggregating information from thousands of sexual assault medical forensic examination forms and linking this information to crime lab information on SAK submission and analysis findings. To meet this goal, following completion of a PhD program, I established collaborative agreements with forensic nursing teams and the state crime lab and created a research team.

Our retrospective study on SAK submission rates across the state, aptly entitled, "Justice Denied: Low Submission Rates of Sexual Assault Kits and Their Predicting Variables," found that only 38% of SAKs from 2010-2013 were submitted by law enforcement to the state crime laboratory.1 Merely 23% of SAKs were submitted within a year of the assault. The strongest predicting variable for SAK submissions was the site or jurisdiction of the assault with submission rates ranging from 4% to 40% indicating subjectivity and bias in the decision-making process. Other variables predicting SAK submission included male victims (46% more likely to be submitted), suspected drug-facilitated sexual assault (25% more likely to be submitted), victim drug use prior to assault (25% less likely to be submitted), victims who bathed or showered after the assault (17% less likely to be submitted), victims with physical and/or mental impairments (17% less likely to be submitted), and victims who knew the suspect (16% less likely to be submitted).

The study findings received substantial media and legislative attention.2-4 In 2017, legislation was successfully passed mandating the submission of SAKs by law enforcement to the state crime lab within one month of the assault.5 The SAK submission rate increased from 23% to nearly 100% within a year of the assault following this research and resulting legislation. Research and evidence initiated and informed this important legislation to improve justice.

Mandating submission and testing of SAKs removes the subjective decision-making on SAK submissions to establish equity in cases of sexual assault. Indeed, by mandating SAK submissions, the application of forensic science to achieve justice is universal for all victims of sexual violence. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS) upcoming 2024 conference, "Justice for All," underscores the dedication of AAFS to promote justice for all through forensic science. As members of AAFS, we can strive to work together in achieving the essential goal of "justice for all." 

1Valentine, J.L., Sekula, L.K., Cook, L., Campbell, R., Colbert, A., and Weeden, V. (2016).  Justice denied: Low submission rates of sexual assault kits and the predicting variables. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, Article first published online: December 1, 2016. doi: 10.1177/0886260516681881.

2Hatch, H. (2016, April 7). BYU study finds majority of Utah rape kits still not submitted to crime labs. KUTV News.

3Reavy, P. (2016, April 7). BYU study shows most rape kits don't make it to Utah crime lab. KSL News.

4McBride, J. (2016, April 6). BYU professor works to help victims of rape through in-depth research and training. BYU University Communications.

5Sexual Assault Kit Processing Amendments, House Bill 200 (2017). https://le.utah.gov/~2017/bills/static/hb0200.html.




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