When Mariska Hargitay started playing Olivia Benson on Law & Order: Special Victims’ Unit, the content of the scripts, as well as the work she did to prepare for the role, opened her eyes to the staggering statistics about sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse in the United States. She received hundreds, then thousands of letters from survivors disclosing their stories of abuse, many for the first time. She wanted to answer those letters, to address the suffering they described, and honor acts of courage they represented. Her response was to launch the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004.
In 2009, Hargitay learned about the backlog of untested rape kits in police storage facilities across the country after reading a report from Human Rights Watch. In Hargitay’s words, “To me, the backlog is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how we regard these crimes in our society.” The Joyful Heart Foundation made ending the national rape kit backlog of over 225,000 untested kits the foundation’s advocacy priority.
In September 2016, the Montana Department of Justice was awarded a $2 million-dollar grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to assist with tracking and processing 1,252 untested sexual assault kits in Montana, some dating back to 1995. Of that number, 458 kits were found eligible to be tested. Those kits have been slowly coming back with DNA “hits” from a massive federal DNA database called CODIS. That means that sexual assault cases that were once considered cold are now positioned for finding a suspect.
One of the primary areas of focus for Montana Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) has been identifying best practices for survivor notification. The project is committed to providing a survivor-centered, trauma-informed notification process to mitigate re-victimization, honor survivors’ experiences, and alleviate the potential for harm. To that end, the notification process includes a trained, community-based advocate in the specific jurisdiction to provide confidential support and connection to long-term support beyond the notification.
A typical in-person notification is conducted by a multi-disciplinary team that includes a MT SAKI Victim/ Witness Advocate and/or Coordinator, law enforcement representative, and a community-based advocate. In the Helena area, as a Crisis Response Advocate for The Friendship Center, I have been helping fulfill the role of the community-based advocate for in-person notifications.
During the pandemic and the increased use of online meeting platforms, MT SAKI has remained aware of the survivor’s comfort level and choices when it comes to notification meetings and has actively engaged survivors in deciding how they would like to meet with the team. Survivors can choose to have an online meeting using Zoom, participate via phone, or the team coordinator can connect the survivor to a detective and advocate in her/his jurisdiction to arrange an in-person meeting.
In 2019 a convicted sex offender was the first person charged with rape under the initiative. A woman reported being raped outside her apartment building in 2015. She underwent a sexual assault exam, and the exam kit was held in evidence by Great Falls police until 2018 when it was sent to a crime lab for testing. The evidence matched the offender’s DNA which was in the CODIS national database following a 2005 sexual assault conviction in Fergus County.
To learn more about the national backlog of untested kits, and how it affected four women as they traced the fate of their kits and re-engaged in the criminal justice process, watch the Emmy-award winning HBO documentary I Am Evidence, which Hartigay produced in partnership with HBO.