Rape kit inaccessibility a hurdle to justice for victims in Canada, say advocates
Forensic analyst India Henry examines cotton swabs from a sexual assault evidence kit in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on April 2, 2015. (Pat Sullivan / AP Photo)
VANCOUVER - When Susan Chapelle awoke in a stranger's home, her head pounding and her clothes on backwards, she didn't even consider reporting her rape.
Chapelle was a young woman when she was drugged and assaulted after going to a man's house to buy a pet. She felt an immediate rush of shame that stuck with her for two decades.
"I felt horribly guilty for going to his house in the first place, and I felt horribly guilty for drinking a glass of wine," she recalled. "All I could think was: 'It's my fault."'
Now, the Squamish, B.C., councillor is devoting herself to removing hurdles in the justice system for sexual assault victims. And one of her top priorities is to bring rape kits - forensic exams that collect evidence after an attack - to her small district north of Vancouver.
Many hospitals in Canada still lack trained forensic nurses to administer the kits, sometimes forcing traumatized women to travel long distances or wait for hours. It's yet another roadblock in a system that already feels hostile to victims, advocates say.
In the Sea-to-Sky corridor that includes Squamish, patients who want a rape kit must travel an hour or more, sometimes in the back of a police car, to Vancouver General Hospital, said Chapelle.
"Somebody who's been through trauma, the last thing they want is to feel like a criminal and be taken in the back of a police car and then wait to have a rape kit administered in the city," she said.
Chapelle said she and the Howe Sound Women's Centre have asked Vancouver Coastal Health to fund a forensic nurse position in Squamish, but the health authority lacks the resources from the British Columbia government.
"Vancouver Coastal Health has been very open and receptive," she said. "The Ministry of Health is not interested in resolving the problem."
The ministry responded that the authority is "actively engaged" in finding a solution. There are 13 health centres in southern B.C. that can administer kits, while doctors in all 24 northern hospitals can provide the exams, it said in a statement.
Across Canada, rape kit access varies widely and information can be hard to find. Women are often shocked that not every hospital offers the exams, said Lisa Steacy of the Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres.
"It does create another hurdle. Having to ask for something twice is harder than being able to ask for it once," she said.
Quebec and Ontario run their own forensic exam system, rather than using RCMP kits and labs. Quebec said it has 77 centres that can administer the kits, making it a national leader, while Ontario has at least 35 locations.
In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, only urban hospitals have kits - outside cities, health care staff must call Mounties to bring in the equipment. Alberta RCMP also transports kits to hospitals upon request.
Access varies, too, in Atlantic provinces, where Newfoundland has 36 sites that can deliver kits and P.E.I. has one. Nova Scotia has been criticized for a lack of resources, but the province said it has three regional teams of specially-trained nurses with plans for two more on the way.
Rape kits differ depending on the type of assault and can include taking fluid samples, swabs and photographs. After advocates balked at the standard RCMP kit, the force is revising it to remove instructions requiring pulled scalp or pubic hair.
Lynn Gifford, co-ordinator of forensic nursing services at B.C.'s Fraser Health, said patients are always given the option of not undergoing the exam. She said forensic nurses offer emotional support, but also must maintain objectivity because they're often asked to testify.
She said nurses have to be able to deny accusations of defence lawyers who say, "You spent three hours with this person. You must believe their story. You must have formed a bond."
In the U.S., an immense backlog of untested rape kits sitting on storage shelves for years has made headlines. Vice President Joe Biden recently announced $80 million in funding to examine nearly 70,000 kits.
A backlog of that magnitude doesn't appear to exist in Canada. Most provinces rely on the RCMP's three labs in Vancouver, Edmonton and Ottawa. Mounties wouldn't say how long testing takes, but said kits are prioritized by case urgency.
Ontario's lab has an average turnaround of 29 days, while Quebec tests most kits within 90 days.
Of course, rape kits are not needed in every criminal trial and some experts say their importance is overstated. Most cases hinge on the question of consent, said lawyer Pamela Cross.
"When a woman has been sexually assaulted by someone she knows, particularly when it's someone she knows quite well, and consent is the only issue, rape kits are of far less use," she said.
Irene Tsnepnopoulos-Elhaimer of Women Against Violence Against Women said forensic evidence doesn't guarantee a win in court. But rape kits must be available so women can decide for themselves how to move forward, she said.
"Women respond to sexual violence differently, and have the right to choose their own path to healing and justice."