Across the United States, the spread of COVID-19 has affected Americans in ways that we may not have initially considered. A good example is the popular meme circulating on social media that says, “Hey moms! How many times have you yelled, ‘Stop! We cannot go to the emergency room right now!!’??” This highlights just one of the ways that our lives have changed: avoiding the emergency room at all costs, because we know that going there would add to the burden for many hospitals and also risk exposure to the virus.
This desire to avoid the emergency room is also impacting the way that evidence is collected in sexual assault cases — and even the number of people who are seeking care after a sexual assault. According to the International Association of Forensic Nurses, there has been a dramatic drop in the number of patients coming to hospitals after being sexually assaulted. Some forensic nurses are handling the challenges of this situation by conducting exams in clinics and locations outside of emergency departments. Others are asking survivors to collect physical evidence themselves.
At-home sexual assault testing kits emerged in fall 2019 in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The companies that offer these “DIY” rape kits claimed that it was an accurate way for victims and survivors to collect evidence of sexual assault in the privacy of their homes. However, these kits are not the equivalent of an in-person sexual assault exam, which also includes medical care in addition to collecting evidence. For example, during an in-person sexual assault exam, victims and survivors are tested for sexually transmitted infections and can be supported by a specially-trained advocate from a crisis center before, during and after their exam — neither of which is a possibility with an at-home kit.
There are also numerous legal issues with the use of at-home rape kits. As the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR) explains, Pennsylvania law requires that evidence in sexual assault cases be collected in a specific way, and within a specific timeframe. Evidence collected through at-home kits would probably not be admissible in court — which means that victims and survivors may be denied justice.
In these challenging times, we know that going to the emergency room may be something that victims and survivors of sexual assault simply do not want to do. The decision to go the hospital — or to not go — is a personal one.
If you have experienced sexual violence, we are here to help. Our hotline is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week: 1-888-832-2272. All calls are free of charge, confidential, and can be anonymous. Reach out to us at anytime to talk through your options — or simply to get support. Throughout the pandemic, we are still here for you.
Learn More: Sexual Assault