Rape Victims Charged Up to $1,200 for Rape Kits
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When a woman is raped, police turn to scientific evidence-semen, blood and tissue samples-to identify her attacker. The evidence is collected through a medical exam of the victim, who is not supposed to pay for this crime-solving process.
But 15 years after Congress passed a law to ensure that rape victims would never see a bill, loopholes and bureaucratic tangles still leave some victims paying for hospital expenses and exams, which can cost up to $1,200.
Congress requires state or local authorities to cover these costs, but the state legislatures that regulate the process offer piecemeal guarantees of Congress’ mandate, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund and ProPublica found. Some states allow hospitals to bill the victim’s insurer. Confusion in California and other states allows police to occasionally ignore Congress’ rules and require victims to cooperate with an investigation before exam costs are covered. Lax enforcement of the law, victims’ advocates say, also means some hospitals in Illinois bill victims directly.
Congress created the Violence Against Women Act to protect victims and encourage them to report rapes. The law known as VAWA has forced many states to crack down on billing problems.
But ambiguities in the law still allow a remarkable disparity in the legal system: Some rape victims, unlike victims of other crimes, have to pay for basic evidence collection.
"We never ask a robbery victim to pay for the cost of fingerprints," said Sarah Tofte, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, which has been tracking how states comply with VAWA.
As a victim recovers from her assault, the last thing she needs is a bill for her exam, said Katherine Hull, a spokeswoman for the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.
After all, she said, "Rape is not something you can budget for".
Despite billing concerns, Hull and other advocates encourage victims to get a forensic exam. Many emergency rooms have specially trained nurses who swab, scan and photograph victims’ bodies, hunting for evidence.
Yet states vary in how proficiently they process the evidence and medical bills that follow. As we previously reported, even if the state pays for an exam, there is no guarantee the evidence will be tested. There are more than 350,000 untested DNA samples backlogged in police departments and crime labs nationwide, according to federal statistics.
Kellie Greene, a rape victim who battled collection agencies in the 1990s because she refused to pay for her exam, is disappointed that victims still find themselves saddled with hospital bills and testing delays. "It’s a frightening thought," said Greene, who runs the advocacy group Speaking Out About Rape.
An opportunity to strengthen VAWA will come soon because Congress must reauthorize the law before it expires in 2011. In a statement, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, said Congress "will need to carefully consider what can be done to improve and strengthen the Act."
Revisions to VAWA, Leahy’s statement said, "should include providing every possible assistance to victims, regardless of where they live."
It’s unclear whether Republicans on the Judiciary Committee would support VAWA reform. A spokesman for Sen. Jeff Sessions, the committee’s ranking Republican, did not return calls or e-mails requesting comment.
ENFORCING THE LAW
Some states and police departments have a history of skirting their responsibility to pay for forensic exams, we found in an analysis of state statutes and from interviews with policymakers and victims’ advocates.
Last year’s presidential race exposed the shortcomings.
During the campaign, it came to light that until 2000, police in some Alaska towns charged rape victims or their insurance companies up to $1,200 for forensic exams - including the town of Wasilla where vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was mayor from 1996 to 2002.