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Utah bill regarding at-home sexual assault evidence kits sparks debate, controversy

Posted at 9:22 PM, Feb 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-01 23:31:57-05

SALT LAKE CITY — A product meant to be a way for sexual assault victims to collect DNA evidence without going to a police station or hospital may soon be banned in Utah.

It's a legislative battle between people claiming to be fighting for the same cause.

A company called Leda Health wants to make what they call “self-use sexual assault kits.” These kits haven't been manufactured, let alone sold yet, but some of Utah’s most prominent victim advocates worry that what's being sold is false hope.

Kits like these are currently free and administered in Utah hospitals. But Madison Campbell, the CEO and co-founder of Leda Health, plans to make and sell at-home versions.

They’re intended for sexual assault victims who would otherwise not report the incident or visit a hospital — which is the case for the vast majority. In 2007, the Utah Commission for Criminal and Juvenile Justice said only 12 percent of sexual assault victims reported the crime to police, and 87 percent never sought medical help.

Tori Flint is a Utah victim advocate who says she would have used an at-home kit.

“As a survivor, it really hits home. I also did not report, and I also did not get the kit done,” she said. “It’s terrifying, and you feel like sometimes it's almost your fault ... not that that's true at all.”

But state Rep. Angela Romero says at-home sexual assault kits would do more harm than good. Her bill, H.B. 168, would ban them.

“Why would anyone want to profit off of somebody's pain?” she said. “It gives victims false hope that they can do it themselves when they need to be seeking out professional help.”

She and Rape Recovery Center executive director Sonja Martinez-Ortiz say the kits will keep victims from help they need.

“What we want them to do is to get them the necessary health services available from a qualified sexual assault nurse examiner, to look for hidden injuries that a survivor might not be aware of or that you might not be able to see,” Martinez-Ortiz said. “And then again, those additional follow up healing resources.”

Also, they say evidence from kits administered by professionals stand up in court, while over-the-counter or do-it-yourself versions would not.

“Anyone can get a free sexual assault kit if they've been a victim of sexual assault, and then there's a chain of evidence there,” Romero said. “Even if they decide not to send it to law enforcement, that sexual assault kit will be stored for 50 years if they ever change their mind.”

Campbell referred to a test case in California, where restricted hospital access due to COVID-19 led to rape kits administered by professionals in victims’ homes.

“The district attorney said there were no chain of custody or admissibility problems,” she said.

Further, the debate over the issue in Utah is complicated by an online campaign against the bill.

As recently as Sunday, the website notohb168.com displayed “Rape Recovery Center Utah | Say No To HB 168” on browser tab previews, as well as the preview if the link was sent by text message.

Leda Health owns the site.

“It feels like this one particular company is using misleading information to target folks in a very uncomfortable spot,” Martinez-Ortiz said.

Campbell claims the website issue was not deliberate.

“If that happened, that was definitely not meant to happen. I'm sure it was probably a mistake,” she said. “But the things that we're trying to do is get rape recovery center, the Utah Coalition and Rep. Romero to hear our side of the story and to work together with us.”

On Monday, the website’s preview showed “Say No To HB 168 - Utah.”

Campbell says she wants to provide options, including the kits being used in private, but with the victim having a witness remotely on something like Zoom. She also said they might help in parts of the world without nearby medical services. The bill passed the House on Friday and will now be considered by the Senate.

The Rape Recovery Center provides help and resources to victims of sexual assault, online at raperecoverycenter.org as well as a 24/7 crisis line: 801-467-7273.