By Dorothy Samuels
Even in tough budget times, there are lines that cannot be crossed. So I was startled by this tidbit reported recently by The Associated Press: When Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, the small town began billing sexual-assault victims for the cost of rape kits and forensic exams.
Ms. Palin owes voters an explanation. What was the thinking behind cutting the measly few thousand dollars needed to cover the yearly cost of swabs, specimen containers and medical tests? Whose dumb idea was it to make assault victims and their insurance companies pay instead? Unfortunately, her campaign is shielding the candidate from the press, so Americans may still be waiting for answers on Election Day.
The rape-kit controversy is a troubling matter. The insult to rape victims is obvious. So is the sexism inherent in singling them out to foot the bill for investigating their own case. And the main result of billing rape victims is to protect their attackers by discouraging women from reporting sexual assaults.
That’s why when Senator Joseph Biden, the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, drafted the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, he included provisions to make states ineligible for federal grant money if they charged rape victims for exams and the kits containing the medical supplies needed to conduct them. (Senator John McCain, Ms. Palin’s running mate, voted against Mr. Biden’s initiative, and his name has not been among the long list of co-sponsors each time the act has been renewed.)
That’s also why, when news of Wasilla’s practice of billing rape victims got around, Alaska’s State Legislature approved a bill in 2000 to stop it.
“We would never bill the victim of a burglary for fingerprinting and photographing the crime scene, or for the cost of gathering other evidence,” said Alaska’s then-governor, Tony Knowles. “Nor should we bill rape victims just because the crime scene happens to be their bodies.”
If Ms. Palin ever spoke out about the issue, one way or another, no record has surfaced. Her campaign would not answer questions about when she learned of the policy, strongly supported by the police chief: whether she saw it in the budget and if not, whether she learned of it before or after the State Legislature outlawed the practice.
All the campaign would do was provide a press release pronouncing: “Prevention of domestic violence and sexual assault is a priority for Gov. Palin.”
Eric Croft, a former Democratic state lawmaker who sponsored the corrective legislation, believes that Wasilla’s mayor knew what was going on. (She does seem to have paid heed to every other detail of town life, including what books were on the library’s shelves.)
The local hospital did the billing, but it was the town that set the policy, Mr. Croft noted. That policy was reflected in budget documents that Ms. Palin signed.
Mr. Croft further noted that right after his measure became law, Wasilla’s local paper reported that Ms. Palin’s handpicked police chief, Charlie Fannon, acknowledged the practice of billing to collect evidence for sexual-assault cases. He complained that the state was requiring the town to spend $5,000 to $14,000 a year to cover the costs. “I just don’t want to see any more burden put on the taxpayer,” the chief explained.
“I can’t imagine any police chief, big city or small, who would take on the entire State Legislature on a bill that passed unanimously and not mention to their mayor that they’re doing this,” Mr. Croft said. Even if he didn’t inform her, the newspaper article would have been hard for her to miss.
In the absence of answers, speculation is bubbling in the blogosphere that Wasilla’s policy of billing rape victims may have something to do with Ms. Palin’s extreme opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape. Sexual-assault victims are typically offered an emergency contraception pill, which some people in the anti-choice camp wrongly equate with abortion.
My hunch is that it was the result of outmoded attitudes and boneheaded budget cutting. Still, Ms. Palin has been governor for under two years, and she’s running for vice president largely on her experience as mayor of tiny Wasilla — a far superior credential, she’s told us, to being a community organizer. On the rape kits, as on other issues, she owes voters a direct answer.