ELKTON, Md. - Starting next year across the country, rape victims too afraid or too ashamed to go to police may undergo an emergency-room forensic rape exam. The evidence gathered will be kept on file in a sealed envelope in case they decide to press charges.
The new federal requirement that states pay for "Jane Doe rape kits" is aimed at removing one of the biggest obstacles to prosecuting rape cases: Some women are so traumatized they do not come forward until it is too late to collect hair, semen, or other samples.
"Sometimes the issue of actually having to make a report to police can be a barrier to victims, and this will allow that barrier to cease, to allow the victim to think about it before deciding whether to talk to police," said Carey Goryl, executive director of the International Association of Forensic Nurses.
The practice is already followed at some health clinics, colleges, and hospitals around the country and by the state of Massachusetts.
But many other jurisdictions refuse to cover the estimated $800 cost of a forensic rape exam unless the victim files a police report.
Beginning in 2009, states will have to pay for Jane Doe rape kits to continue receiving funding under the federal Violence Against Women Act. It provides tax dollars for women's shelters and law enforcement training. States will decide how many locations will offer anonymous rape exams and how long the evidence should be kept.
Emergency rooms typically use a "rape kit" to collect evidence for use by police and prosecutors. It consists of microscope slides, boxes, and plastic bags for storing skin, hair, blood, saliva, or semen gathered by a specially trained nurse. The victim's injuries are also photographed.
What makes a Jane Doe rape kit different is that it is sealed with only a number on the outside of the envelope to identify the victim. Police do not open the envelope unless the victim decides to press charges.
The FBI has recommended such an option since at least 1999.
"The idea is to collect the evidence now, while it's still there," said Scott Berkowitz, president of the national Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network.
The new requirement applies only to adult victims. Hospitals and doctors must still report to the police incest or abuse involving children.
In Cecil County, Maryland, local authorities started offering Jane Doe kits four years ago, after a rape victim recanted.
Anne Bean, clinical director for a rape and sexual assault counseling program in Cecil County, said giving women the option of keeping police out of it until they are ready to press charges is crucial.
According to the U.S. Justice Department, 272,350 sexual assaults were reported in 2006. The same survey estimated that only 41 percent of rapes and other sexual assaults are reported to police.
"Many times, you have people who were drunk, maybe doing drugs, maybe they're underage, and you start talking about the police and they get scared," Ms. Bean said. "So, sometimes it's not until long after [that] they're willing to report, at which point of course any physical evidence is gone."
In Allegany and Cecil counties in Maryland, evidence is kept at least 90 days. So far, 13 women have submitted anonymous evidence. None has returned to press charges.