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DIY rape kits are gaining popularity on college campuses. But are they reliable?

caption: EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, WA has a sexual assault clinic staffed with a nurse examiner 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. One of the things they found, is that survivors would have to remain in the clothes they were attacked for hours before an exam and then had to leave in those same clothes.
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EvergreenHealth in Kirkland, WA has a sexual assault clinic staffed with a nurse examiner 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. One of the things they found, is that survivors would have to remain in the clothes they were attacked for hours before an exam and then had to leave in those same clothes.
KUOW Photo/Esmy Jimenez

Commercially sold, do-it-yourself sexual assault kits are gaining popularity on college campuses. Makers of the kits have marketed them as an alternative option to sexual assault kits conducted in a hospital setting.

But health officials and some sexual assault advocacy groups say the kits stand to create more problems than they solve, and are warning people not to use them.

KUOW’s Natalie Newcomb took a look into these DIY sexual assault kits.

In a previous interview, a sorority leader told KUOW about a Brooklyn-based company called Leda Health and their commercially sold “early evidence kits.”

Taytem Raynor, president of the University of Washington’s Kappa Delta chapter, said her sorority has partnered with Leda Health to offer students at-home STI screening kits, morning-after pills, and at-home rape kits. Leda also provides 24/7 care teams that students can access following a sexual assault.

READ: Fall semester is underway. That's when most campus sexual assaults happen

Following that segment, KUOW heard from listeners who raised concerns about Leda Health and at-home sexual assault kits in general.

One of those listeners is Shannon Bailie, director of the University of Washington’s LiveWell Center for Advocacy, Training and Education. LiveWell provides health education and intervention services to students.

In an email to KUOW, Bailie said Leda Health has “unfortunately inundated our Greek system and spread some concerning misinformation about their ‘at home kits.’” She added that the misinformation “could hurt our students by providing them with a false sense of security” about the legality of the kits, and said they “are not legitimate evidence collections kits in any way.” Following the publication of this story, Bailie wrote in an email to KUOW, “These at home kits are not able to guarantee the admissibility or reliability of evidence collected from their kits.

According to Leda Health’s website, the company is “built by survivors, for survivors” and aims to “empower survivors with additional resources.” The company’s website also states that its early evidence kit was “designed by survivors with the help of nurses, advocates, and lawyers to enable survivors to collect and store DNA, when accessing a traditional sexual assault forensic exam is not possible or against the survivor’s wishes.”

Bailie, Leda Health, and two other experts KUOW spoke to all agreed that at-home kits are not a replacement for rape kits that are done at a hospital by Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE nurses).

A spokesperson for Leda Health called the kits administered during a SANE exam “the Golden standard.” On its website, the company says, “Leda Health always encourages assault survivors to seek in-person emergency care.” The company describes itself as being “here to support survivors where the traditional systems don’t.”

Why would a sexual assault victim not want to go to a hospital for an exam?

Leda Health told KUOW that during the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault, victims “oftentimes don't want to have any interaction.” They may be feeling ashamed, Leda Health said, and might second guess themselves by wondering, “Did I actually invite this? Did I drink too much? What was I wearing? Did I flirt too much?”

Leda Health also pointed to how its DIY kits allow victims to collect samples without any human interaction.

A victim may not want to be touched or talk about the assault “as they try to process their experience,” Leda Health said, even if they are interacting with medical staff. The company argues that SANE exams are intrusive by nature, and may retraumatize victims of sexual assault.

But not everyone sees it that way.

Terri Stewart is the SANE program coordinator at Harborview Medical Center. She said she disagrees that SANE exams are inherently invasive.

“If the nurse is well-trained in trauma informed approach, the exam should not be traumatizing,” Steward said in an email to KUOW. “This misconception that the exam is traumatizing is what allows companies like Leda Health to make money from sexual assault victims.”

Stewart emphasized that her SANE nurses "don’t force patients to do anything in the exam they don’t want to do — [victims] are really in charge.”

Additionally, she pointed out that receiving a rape kit or going to a hospital alone does not trigger a police investigation – a victim would have to explicitly agree to that.

Key differences between SANE exams and DIY rape kits

The largest difference between SANE rape kits and DIY rape kits is who collects the evidence: trained professionals versus victims themselves, respectively. If a victim uses a DIY kit, they become responsible for storing and preserving the evidence, adding another layer of complication.

Emily Petersen is a senior deputy prosecutor for King County and the vice chair of the King County Sheriff’s Special Assault Unit. She said DIY evidence-storing can present problems for victims down the road.

“Those things will always be issues at trial, as to whether or not it was done in the correct way,” Petersen said.

Moreover, SANE nurses are also trained to look for injuries that can be hard for a victim to see or document, Petersen said. Nurses also have the tools to conduct toxicology reports, which can be important for building a case.

The collection of urine and blood samples, for instance, can also be lost with at-home sexual assault kits. The presence of alcohol or other substances, Petersen added, may help establish that a victim was too incapacitated to consent at the time of an assault, which could be critical evidence.

“You simply cannot replicate that at home,” she said.

Are DIY kits eligible for DNA comparison?

When it comes to investigating sexual assault cases, law enforcement agencies often rely on the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, a national DNA database that can help them identity perpetrators.

“That DNA profile can hit against a profile from another case, maybe an unknown case,” Petersen said.

She added that the eligibility of a rape kit to be compared to the database depends on how much evidence was collected. If there is very little DNA evidence collected, a kit can’t be compared to the database – regardless of whether it's a DIY kit or a SANE kit.

The eligibility of a sexual assault kit is important because it gives survivors a chance to identify their perpetrator. Even if a victim is acquainted with their attacker, they may not know the perpetrator’s full identity, Petersen said.

“Maybe [the victim] only knows [the perpetrator’s] street-name, or maybe they met them on a dating app but they don't know their true identity," she said. "In that way, DNA can be really important in confirming the identity of somebody who is a perpetrator of sexual assault.”

There have been instances in which self-collected evidence, broadly, has been eligible for comparison in the Combined DNA Index System.

For example, Petersen pointed to a case where an individual “cleaned up” at home following a sexual assault by using Q-tips. Those Q-tip swabs were later collected as evidence by law enforcement and tested for comparison. The sample yielded a DNA match.

“That case resulted in a successful prosecution and convictions of a serial rapist," Petersen said. "So certainly, DNA profiles can be developed, and often are developed from evidence outside of a hospital setting.”

However, Petersen said professionally done SANE kits are more likely to be eligible for comparison because the “quality of evidence collection will be better done in a hospital setting, because it's being done by a trained professional.”

Are DIY rape kits admissible in court?

If a criminal sexual assault case makes it to trial, a judge becomes the “gatekeeper” of evidence, deciding which evidence a jury is allowed to consider, Petersen said. A jury would later decide if the evidence presented will be included when making a final verdict.

Therefore, it depends on a case-by-case basis.

Petersen said she is not aware of any instances of a commercially-sold DIY rape kit being admitted into court evidence. The situation “just hasn't come up yet,” in her experience, she said. Leda Health said there is no record of their early evidence kits ever being admitted into court evidence.

But Petersen outlined some scenarios that could potentially play out.

If you collect your own evidence, she said, it could weaken a criminal case by shifting the focus to the integrity of the evidence-collecting process.

“If we get to trial, instead of a victim just being questioned about what happened to him or her, you're all of a sudden going to make that witness be cross-examined about how they collected their evidence, how did they store their evidence, and who else had access to the evidence,” she said. “If medical professionals were allowed to do their jobs, you wouldn't be creating those potential issues.”

All of this could lead to having your sexual assault kit thrown out as evidence. But there are times when SANE rape kits are dismissed as evidence, too.

But even if a SANE rape kit or a DIY rape kit gets thrown out in court, that doesn’t mean the perpetrator will not be found guilty, Petersen said. Conversely, an admissible rape kit does not ensure a guilty verdict.

Can universities stop Greek organizations from passing out DIY rape kits?

According to Bailie, universities do not have the authority to tell the Greek system what companies they are allowed to partner with, or what products are allowed to be distributed.

Baillie said University of Washington officials are aware that students like the Raynor are “very dedicated and passionate about these issues regarding sexual assault. They just want to make a difference.”

For her part, Raynor said the decision to partner with Leda Health came after discussing it with her advisors and other sorority members.

If you have experienced sexual assault and need support, you can call the 24-hour National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (800-656-4673). There is also an online chat option.

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