The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office wants to inform and educate the public about at-home sexual assault forensic evidence collection kits.
“From a prosecutor’s perspective, these at-home sexual assault kits raise a variety of concerns,” said Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Tara Gardner, who is assigned to the Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination Project. “The first concern that I would have is that the victim is not receiving the medical care and attention that they need.”
The sexual assault forensic examination is also used to collect and preserve physical and forensic evidence after a person reports a sexual assault. The examinations are conducted at the hospital by highly trained sexual assault forensic nurse examiners and start only after consent from the victim.
“The evidence collection process is guided by specific procedures that we have to follow,” said Makenzy Byrum, a sexual assault forensic nurse examiner of 12 years. “Our role is to address and treat a person’s medical needs.”
Recently, the Netflix miniseries “Unbelievable” has increased public awareness, and questions, about sexual assault investigations and sexual assault forensic examinations.
At this point, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office is aware of at least two companies offering an at-home sexual assault forensic evidence collection kit. One of the companies, according to media reports, launched its product earlier this year but has temporarily suspended sales. The other company, according to its website, will launch sales in the future.
Before sales temporarily stopped, the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office purchased one of the at-home sexual assault forensic evidence kits from an online retailer.
Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Byrum, DDA Gardner and Susan Hormann, who serves as the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office’s Forensic Consultant, gathered to review the contents of the kit. Our particular package arrived in a padded envelope but once we removed the kit from the envelope, we noticed the kit’s exterior packaging was damaged and partially opened. The contents did not appear to have been damaged but for Hormann, it was concerning as she thought about potential contamination to the kit’s contents.
Prior to joining the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office, Hormann served as the operations manager for the Oregon State Police Crime Lab. Her time with Oregon State Police included 19 years of conducting forensic laboratory analysis.
“Everything in the sexual assault kits used at local hospitals is provided by the Oregon State Police Forensic Division,” Hormann said. “They contain sterile swabs that are specially made for evidence collection, which allows for a forensic scientist to lift any potential DNA from the swab in a controlled environment.”
Hormann and Byrum both worry what would happen if a person using an at-home sexual assault forensic evidence kit ran out of swabs or other items typically found in a kit. The concern of the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office is that someone may resort to using household items, such as double sided Q-tips that are typically used for ear cleaning.
“Most likely the items found inside your bathroom right now are not sterile products and they’re not designed for the purpose of collecting biological evidence for testing in a forensic laboratory,” Hormann said.
Byrum added that an in person hospital examination is part of a holistic, multi- disciplinary response to a person reporting a sexual assault. Before starting an exam, a sexual assault nurse examiner and sexual assault victim advocate will meet with the individual and explain to them the process of the examination and their rights.
“A sexual assault survivor always has the right to choose whether to participate in a sexual assault forensic examination,” Byrum said. “They can choose to do all of the exam, some of it, or none of it.”
Once the exam starts, the sexual assault forensic nurse examiner will talk with the individual to learn more about the sexual assault itself. From there, with the victim’s consent, and with the understanding that they can stop at any point, a head-to-toe examination is conducted.
“As long as the survivor wants to move forward with the exam, we look everywhere on their body,” Byrum said. “We have the ability to use an alternate light source and other technology to look for bodily fluids and other potential evidence. A person using one of these at-home kits won’t be able to document injuries that they can’t see.”
Gardner and Hormann both expressed concerns about the at-home kits because of a legal doctrine known as chain of custody, which is a chronological log that records the possession, transfer and analysis of evidence collected as part of a criminal investigation.
“Individuals who collect evidence such as forensic nurses or law enforcement, receive special training and have the expertise in order to appropriately document a chain of custody,” Gardner said. “Chain of custody is very important in a criminal case because it shows that this piece of evidence has been passed from certain individuals who have the training to ensure there is no contamination or tainting of that piece of evidence. When it comes to DNA, it’s all that more important to establish a clear chain of custody in order to get that evidence into court for prosecution.”
If there is question about a piece of evidence’s chain of custody, the court could rule to exclude that particular piece of evidence.
“We want to make sure we put together the strongest possible case for prosecution to ensure sexual assault survivors receive the justice they deserve,” Gardner said. “If you do go to a hospital, you are going to be met with trained, compassionate individuals that do understand what you’re going through and the trauma you are experiencing and they are going to do everything in their power to ensure you receive the highest quality of care, services and respect.”
DID YOU KNOW…
…A sexual assault survivor is not obligated, even if they go to the hospital, to report the assault to law enforcement. “Melissa’s Law” (SB 1571 | 2016) helps make it clear that if a victim wishes to remain anonymous, they are still able to receive a medical examination, a sexual assault forensic examination and advocacy.
Melissa’s Law prohibits the testing of any anonymous sexual assault forensic examination kit. However, if an anonymous victim decides at a later time that they want to report their assault to law enforcement, the kit must be sent to the Oregon State Police Crime Lab within 14 days after the victim makes their report to law enforcement.
Law enforcement must keep and preserve all anonymous kits for up to 60 years.
…In the Multnomah County-area, a sexual assault victim advocate is available to respond to the hospital to be with a survivor throughout the entire process. While at the hospital, a sexual assault victim advocate will work with the survivor to ensure respectful and informed care during the survivor’s disclosure and sexual assault forensic examination. If desired, the advocate will stay with the sexual assault victim during the examination and will be able to provide that person with information about the options they have. Advocates recognize the impact sexual violence can have beyond the assault itself, which is why they can provide resources for ongoing self-care and other support, such as counseling services and support groups.
…Sexual assault forensic examinations are free and are available to any victim of sexual assault in Oregon who requests a sexual assault examination within seven days of the assault.
The Sexual Assault Victims’ Emergency Medical Response (SAVE) Fund will pay for:
- The cost of a sexual assault medical exam
- Medications to prevent sexually transmitted diseases
- Up to five days of HIV medication
- Emergency contraception
- Pregnancy test
- Physician fee
- Up to five counseling sessions
…Hospitals in the Multnomah County-area have a dedicated response protocol for individuals who want to report a sexual assault so they are not having to wait in a public lobby area.
“Most ERs definitely try to prioritize sexual assault survivors by getting them into a private waiting area and getting them trained and professional help as soon as possible,” Byrum said.
…That sexual assault nurse examiners are state licensed nurses with at least two years of general nursing experience. In order to qualify as a sexual assault nurse examiner, a person must receive extensive and on-going training. In addition to their clinical training, sexual assault nurse examiners also receive non-clinical training such as doing a police ride along, observation at the DA’s Office, and participating in a crime lab tour with Oregon State Police.
- Emergency: 9-1-1
- Non-Emergency line in Multnomah County: 503-823-3333
- National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
- Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office’s Victim Assistance Program: 503-988-3222
Contact: Brent Weisberg, Communications Director