Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lost promise for survivors

A backlog in the testing of rape kits in Los Angeles means that many survivors still wait for answers.

By Sarah Tofte

I spent a recent morning at the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, where women (and men and children) get emergency medical care and counseling immediately after they have been raped. I was researching how the center's nurse practitioners collect evidence for a "rape kit."

According to the Justice Department's most recent National Crime Victimization Survey, only about 40% of sexual assaults are reported to police, though other nongovernmental studies indicate even lower rates of 10% to 20%. But among those who do report a rape, most are taken to a hospital to have a rape kit created. In this age of "CSI" and other forensic science TV series, rape victims believe that DNA and other evidence in their rape kits will help police and prosecutors find and punish their assailants. If only that were more true.

The process -- which can last more than four hours -- begins in a private interview room, separate from the hospital emergency room, where a counselor asks in detail what happened during the rape. The counselor is there throughout the subsequent examination.

If I were a survivor, I would next be led into the exam room and asked to undress while standing on a large sheet of butcher paper so that anything that falls from my clothing or body that may provide links to a perpetrator or a crime scene (hairs and carpet or clothing fibers) can be carefully collected and placed in the rape kit.

I would be examined on a gynecological table with stirrups. My body would be scanned with an ultraviolet light to find otherwise undetectable semen or saliva that might contain the assailant's DNA.

The nurse would check my entire body, swabbing every part the assailant touched. Then she would photograph physical injuries, which might include bruises, bite marks or burst blood vessels in the whites of my eyes from strangulation. A magnifying camera -- designed to be as noninvasive as possible -- would then record tears or other injuries to my mouth, vagina or anus.

With incredible care, the nurse would then collect fingernail scrapings, pubic-hair combings and urine and blood samples, placing each in separate envelopes. The swabs also would be labeled and sealed in containers with evidence tape. All this goes into a large white envelope -- the rape kit.

If I were a survivor, the police officer on duty at the center might drive me home with the rape kit in the patrol car. I might imagine that the police were taking it directly to the crime lab to test the samples for DNA that could identify my assailant or provide evidence against an already identified suspect. In 2004, Californians voted overwhelmingly for Proposition 69, which expanded the number and types of offenders whose DNA goes into local, state and national databanks.

But the truth is, after all of that careful and meticulous collection, the rape kit may never be opened, much less tested.

The National Institute of Justice estimates that at least 400,000 rape kits are sitting untested in police stations and crime labs across the country. In the city of Los Angeles alone, more than 7,000 sit in refrigerated storage in a city warehouse facility and a trailer behind police headquarters. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department likely has its own backlog, but the sheriff has never disclosed its size.

Law enforcement officials blame a lack of resources -- for starters, they need more crime lab staff. But it's hard not to surmise that the problem is, in reality, a matter of priorities. Among L.A. City Council members, only Jack Weiss has insisted on budget increases to address the rape kit backlog. This year, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa rejected the LAPD's funding request to hire more crime lab staff.

If I were a survivor, I might never know whether my rape kit was opened. I might assume that silence from the police meant that the crime lab just didn't find any DNA, or none that identified my assailant. Although not every tested rape kit yields a database match, when New York City processed all its backlogged rape kits in 2003, the effort led to about 2,000 hits.

The morning I visited the Rape Treatment Center, three women came to report that they had been raped and to get care. They consented to the extensive, lengthy exam because they had entered into a pact with the police: We will submit to this collection of evidence, and you will submit our rape kits for testing.

I wish I hadn't known the likely fate of their rape kits -- to sit on a shelf, frozen and unexamined. It would be devastating.

Sarah Tofte is a researcher at Human Rights Watch.

[This was an opinion piece in the LA Times. Some words were changed/omitted to fit with SACOMSS's pro-survivor mandate. Click the title for the article as it appeared in the LA Times.]

Benefits awarded to beaten Hooters waitress

By Clark Kauffman

A waitress was barred from working at the Hooters restaurant in Davenport after a violent physical attack left her bruised and unable to meet company standards for maintaining a "glamorous appearance."

The waitress alleges she was fired after taking time off to recover from the assault. Hooters officials say the waitress abandoned her job, but also say that the woman's bruised body made her temporarily ineligible to work as a "Hooters Girl."

An administrative law judge who presided over a recent public hearing dealing with 27-year-old Sara Dye's request for unemployment benefits ruled against the company and awarded benefits to Dye. Judge Teresa Hillary found that Dye's "inability to work due to bruises" did not amount to workplace misconduct.

According to testimony at the hearing, Dye was the victim of several incidents of domestic violence in 2008, the last of which occurred Sept. 3 after she left work for the day. Dye, who lives in Rock Island, Ill., was badly beaten and her assailant - unidentified at the hearing - cut off some of her hair.

The next day, Dye and her managers agreed that at least for the next few weeks she should not be working in the restaurant. General Manager Gina Sheedy testified that Dye's bruises would have been visible outside the Hooters uniform, which is known for being revealing.

"We told her it was probably not in her best interest to work for a while because of the state of her body," Sheedy testified.

Hillary asked Sheedy whether the restaurant would have agreed to a request from Dye to return to work immediately.

"No, probably not," Sheedy replied. "She probably would not be able to work because of her black eye and the bruises on her face. ... Our handbook states you have to have a glamorous appearance. It doesn't actually say, 'Bruises on your face are not allowed.' It does talk about the all-American cheerleader look."

Sheedy said Dye could now resume working at Hooters, assuming she maintained a glamorous appearance.

"And a glamorous appearance to you means you can't have bruises on your face or your body that show outside the uniform?" Hillary asked.

"Correct," Sheedy replied.

The restaurant's assistant manager, Michelle Duvall, testified that shortly after the attack, Dye talked to her about returning to work after a week of recovery time.

"She told me that she was very badly beaten, she (had been) unconscious, she was in the hospital," Duvall said. "She was like, 'I really want to work next week. ...' I said, 'You need to come in and speak to Gina and let her see your appearance.'"

Hillary asked Duvall what would happen if a waitress's hair had to be cut as a result of an injury from an accident.

Duvall said that according to the company handbook, a waitress's hair "needs to be styled as if you're going out on a big date on a Saturday night, as if you're preparing for a photo shoot."

Dye declined to comment on the case when contacted by a Des Moines Register reporter. She testified that Hooters was supportive of her in the wake of previous "personal problems." She said that when she called the restaurant in late September about returning to work, a co-worker informed her she had been fired.

The owner of the Davenport restaurant, Darren Taylor, said his company valued Dye as an employee and didn't fire her. He declined to comment on the company's standards for physical appearance.

"I won't go into all of the Hooters Girl requirements, because they're contained in about a 50-page book," he said. "But I don't know any restaurateur who would want somebody totally bruised up waiting on his customers."

Dye testified that she understood why she couldn't come to work in the immediate aftermath of the attack.

"My body appearance wasn't up to par," she said.

Colorado State University Police Chief: "women want the dick, even when they say 'no.'

Suspended police chief refutes allegations

By J. David McSwane

Suspended CSU Police Chief Dexter Yarbrough refutes that he delivered several questionable and alarming lectures Wednesday and lashed back at the student who recorded his statements, which were detailed in this newspaper on Tuesday.

Yarbrough - the highest paid police chief in the state at $156,000 a year - was suddenly put on paid administrative leave Dec. 19 for separate, apparently unrelated allegations, school officials said.

Citing strict personnel laws, details about the suspension and an ongoing inquiry headed by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation haven't been divulged.

In the audio, which was picked up by Denver media outlets after a Collegian report, Yarbrough advised students in a classroom to provide illicit drugs as payment to informants, to cut corners in police work and condoned the use of excessive force against suspects.

"We may decide to give the informant 10 of those (crack cocaine) rocks. OK," Yarbrough said to his criminal investigations class, for which he is additionally compensated as an adjunct instructor.

In the recording, one student sought clarification on the chief's advice, saying:

"So if a police officer gives an informant 10 rocks of crack, and they end up in the hospital, are they responsible for it at that point? … Because I could just say the police gave it to me?"

To the student's question, Yarbrough responded: "Let me tell you what I would do: You give it to them, but you let them know that, hey, if you get caught with this, you know, don't say my name. Or if they get sick or something, I never gave them those (drugs). "Didn't I tell you guys that sometimes the police lie? Didn't I tell you guys that? If I didn't, there you go."

But the audio - snippets totaling about 28 minutes in length - was taken out of context, Yarbrough says. The Collegian was not provided and has not reviewed the full recordings from the class lectures in question.

"As typical of all my courses, I attempt to give students a realistic view on how policing works - both good and bad," Yarbrough said in a statement. "During one particular class, I was illustrating how sometimes police officers cross the line in order to catch drug dealers. In no way was I condoning the behavior, I was simply illustrating it. I have taught at CSU for over 4 [four] years, and I have provided the same information in a dramatic fashion."

Yarbrough, along with nine other professors on campus, won the Best Teacher of the Year Award in 2007, and in anonymous and unofficial evaluations the CSU teacher evaluation site,, received top scores.

But Aaron Gropp, the 38-year-old graduate student and former Larimer County Sheriff's Deputy who recorded the lectures, said he began recording the lectures after the chief told student in the class, "Women want the dick, even when they say 'no.' They want the dick."

In response to allegations of sexist comments in the classroom, Yarbrough said: "In no way was I purposely being sexist towards women. I was simply illustrating points in the class. I have always been a big supporter of women, as well as diversity, inside and outside the classroom."

But Yarbrough accused Gropp of purposefully taking the statements out of context to "retaliate" because the student wasn't happy with his grade.

Gropp, who received an incomplete for the course, maintains that the audio was not taken out of context.

"What a liar," he said simply Wednesday night.

Yarbrough defended his teaching style and declined to comment further about several allegations against him from officers under his command.

"I won Best Teacher of Year in 2007," Yarbrough said. "I don't do that (by condoning) illegal behavior."