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Revisiting the Wasilla Rape Kit Story

News that Wasilla charged rape victims for forensic work has hit the mainstream. But the practice is more common than we think.
 
 
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As mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin approved a budget that eliminated the police department's funding for rape exams.

The decision to stop paying for rape kits could have disqualified the entire state from receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grant money through the Violence Against Women Act, which requires states to certify that some public agency is picking up the tab for all rape kits.

Forensic sexual exams are performed by nurses, but they are actually part of the police investigation into a crime. During the exam, the victim's body is searched as a crime scene. Charging victims for these exams is the equivalent of charging a burglarly victim for the cost of fingerprinting and photographing a crime scene.

Palin's handpicked chief of police, Charlie Fannon, made the decision to stop funding rape exams, even though the department didn't bill victims of other crimes for investigations. The policy went into effect in 1998.

With the stroke of Palin's pen, Wasilla became the only town in Alaska where the police wouldn't pay from rape kits as a matter of official policy. According to testimony before the Alaska legislature, there were scattered reports of victims being charged elsewhere in the state as well.

The State of Alaska outlawed the practice in 2000, over the strenuous objections of Chief Fannon. The Alaska State police have never billed victims for rape kits, according to a spokeswoman for the Alaska Department of Public Safety.

Palin claims she had no idea that rape victims were being charged on her watch. Yet, it appears that Chief Fannon waged a vocal campaign to defend the policy in the media after a bill was introduced in the State legislature to ban the practice.

Last week, Palin spokeswoman Maria Comella told USA Today that the candidate "does not believe, nor has she ever believed, that rape victims should have to pay for an evidence-gathering test."

The Alaska state legislature outlawed victim-pay exams in 2000. Chief Fannon complained to the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman that rape kits were an undue burden on the taxpayers that should, if possible, be shouldered by the perpetrators. If Fannon had a plan for billing rapists before their crimes were investigated, much less tried, the Frontiersman didn't mention it.

The costs weren't exactly astronomical. At the time, the exams cost between $300 and $1200 each. Wasilla, a city of approximately 7000, typically sees between one and four reported rapes per year, according to federal crime statistics.

Lauree Hugolin, then the director of the Director of Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, testified before an Alaska House committee in 2000 that individual women were being billed for exams in the Mat-Su Valley -- Wasilla's borough. She stressed that the police were sometimes billing women indirectly through their insurance companies.

If victims had health insurance with a deductible, they would still be forced to pay out of pocket for the test. Even if the victims didn't have to pay, a private company was getting stuck with the cost of policing in Wasilla.

According to the bill's sponsor, Andrew Croft, legislation was motivated complaints about Wasilla.

Palin's policy could have cost Alaska hundreds of thousands in federal grants, had the State legislature not intervened.

In order to be eligible for STOP grants under the Violence Against Women Act, states must certify that some public agency is paying for the full out-of-pocket cost for all rape exams for victims who cooperate with law enforcement.

All 50 states have submitted these certifications since 1994. According to officials at the Justice Department's Office of Violence Against Women, states could be stripped of their funding if it turned out that the city was deliberately shirking the full out-of-pocket costs of rape kits for victims cooperating with police.

Interviews with rape survivors suggest that VAWA hasn't completely eliminated the problem of rape victims getting bills for forensic exams. Victims may still get bills because of bureaucratic incompetence, or because they didn't report the attack to the police.

Currently, VAWA allows hospitals to bill for rape kits if victims do not cooperate with law enforcement. That will change in January of 2009, when states will have bear the full out of pocket cost of rape kits whether the victim cooperates with police or not.

When victims have to pay for their own exams, the psychological impact can be devastating. Hannah French, a 27-year-old office manager from Tennessee got billed for her rape kit after she was assaulted last August. "I got phone calls for a couple months from the hospital, but I refused to pay it," French said. "Even to imagine that the victim should pay is ludicrous."

Another rape victim, Rose Luce started getting bills from a New Jersey hospital after getting undergoing forensic exam in 2004. Like many survivors who get billed, Luce saw the bill as way of blaming her for what happened. Holding her financially responsible seemed like just another way of saying it was her fault. According to Luce, who corresponded with AlterNet via e-mail, "It felt like they were saying what happened was my responsibility."

The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-HOPE. You can also reach the new National Sexual Assault Online Hotline at rainn.org.

Lindsay Beyerstein is a New York writer blogging at majikthise.typepad.com

 
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