Editor’s Note: Mariska Hargitay is the founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation and the Emmy Award-winning star of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
Much has been written this year about women’s anger – its power and potential, its evolution and necessity. But beneath the analysis, there is the feeling itself: anger, pure and simple. It’s what I felt when I read CNN’s report about the destruction – the outrageous, careless, wrongheaded, uneducated, ill-informed, dangerous, willful destruction – of rape kits.
I have been engaged in the work to bring an end to sexual violence since 2004, the year I started the Joyful Heart Foundation, which aims to heal and empower sexual assault survivors. But in truth, my work goes back even further – to the moment I learned some of the statistics about sexual assault and domestic violence in preparation for my role on “Law & Order: SVU.”
For example, in the United States, one in three women and one in six men are survivors of sexual violence. One in four women and one in seven men have suffered severe violence from an intimate partner. Those numbers alone almost made my head explode.
I had that feeling again when I first learned about the backlog of untested rape kits in 2009, after a report from Human Rights Watch. I couldn’t wrap my mind around it: thousands of rape kits sitting, in some cases rotting, in police storage facilities across the country.
As Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault, has said, “If you’ve got stacks of physical evidence of a crime, and you’re not doing everything you can with the evidence, then you must be making a decision that this isn’t a very serious crime.” Beyond the obvious threat to public safety, beyond the wasted opportunities to both prosecute the guilty and exonerate the wrongly convicted, the backlog sends a devastating and inexcusable message to survivors: You don’t matter. What happened to you doesn’t matter.
And if the backlog wasn’t enough, the destruction of rape kits now brings our country’s attitude toward sexual assault and its victims into even sharper focus. Explore CNN’s investigative report and you will learn about 99 agencies in 47 states destroying rape kits. About a detective in North Carolina who authorized the trashing of a rape kit a month after it was collected from a woman who was gang raped because the investigator didn’t believe her. And about records showing kits were trashed as recently as 2016 – with one of the objectives being to “make space in the evidence room.”
That is an outrageous, shameful level of disregard, and the system that makes it possible must change. Just as the backlog is a reflection of how we regard sexual assault and its victims in this country, the individual actions and decisions by law enforcement are the outcome of deeply entrenched societal attitudes that make those actions and decisions possible. Those attitudes must be dismantled.
And what must change are the laws governing the handling of rape kits.
As CNN reports, last year the National Institute of Justice issued recommendations for best practices about the counting, tracking and testing of rape kits, reforms that the federal government agrees are needed. In order to be able to hold jurisdictions accountable, those recommendations must become law in all 50 states. Legally requiring the testing of rape kits and prohibiting the destruction of rape kits ensures that every survivor gets the same standard of care and rights. Importantly, each survivor should also have the right – by law – to know the status of their rape kit and have the option of having it preserved for as long as they want.
It is important to note that systemic and lasting change takes effect through state-level legislation. While agency, local, and county-level reforms are vital, we know that perpetrators do not stop at the county limits, and survivors’ access to justice should not be restricted by zip code.
Progress has already been made, to be sure. In the last two years alone, we and our partners have helped pass 34 laws to change the way rape kits are handled and are already working on legislation for 2019. Through endthebacklog.org, the first and only comprehensive online hub for information about the rape kit backlog in the United States, we are sharing best practices, progress on reform and a way for people to join this growing effort.
I also had the great privilege of telling survivors’ stories who have kits in the backlog in “I Am Evidence,” the documentary I produced in partnership with HBO, which continues to be shown in communities across the country.
In the work to bring this violence to an end – that is the vision to which we must commit – stark reminders, like this important report from CNN, confront us with how much work is left to be done. While the report’s content angers me deeply, perhaps that anger is not pure and simple. It also contains a renewed resolve, a reminder of how much is at stake in our work, and a deepened determination to create the more just society we all seek.