Please note, this is a somewhat graphic post dealing with rape, rape kits, and evidence collection. I tried to keep it somewhat clinical. There’s also a little political bit at the end.
I used to volunteer for a local women’s shelter as a domestic violence and crisis counselor. That means that a few times a month I was on call to take phone calls or go to the hospital and meet with victims of domestic violence. I’d get calls at 2, 4, 6 am with instructions on which hospital to go to, what the victim’s name is and the situation. I got up, threw on some comfy clothes because I might be there four hours or so, maybe grab a snack to chomp on the way.
At the hospital, I head straight for the ER to show ID and make my way through triage. God help me if there was a major accident. The ER can be scary, people running around with crash carts, people screaming. Blood.
Our women’s center had a little locker like you had at school that included an instant camera, a clipboard and forms, brochures, rubber gloves, and some extra clothes. I’ll tell you why there were extra clothes in a minute.
There is a long protocol for hospital visits for shelter volunteers. Identify yourself and ask if you can enter the ER cubicle. Look the person in the eye. Assume she (or he…I had a couple of male domestic violence victims) is innocent and telling the truth. That last one was difficult for some people to grasp, though not the volunteers who know better. Nobody asks to have the living breath beat out of them in front of their children. Nobody asks to be raped by the ex they thought they were rid of. It takes a battered woman an average of seven times to finally break all ties with her abuser.
I collect verbal information, take instant photos with the camera, and talk about what happened. If they want information on restraining orders I give them that. I can’t give them much more than brochures, a cab voucher, and a hand to hold. The idea is that we are victims’ advocates. We are there to provide some comfort, some help for the person. I talked to nurses, doctors and police many times – can she have another blanket? Can she have some water? When can she go home?
Seeing people bloodied, beaten, or, in one case, stabbed, was horrified, but the rape kits were by far the worst. Hardly anybody I speak with really understands what a rape kit is or what happens. The rape kit is a little box (in our state it is provided by the Attorney General’s office) with an assortment of baggies, swabs, plastic cloths, and various other evidence collection items. The performing physician – who almost never had done this before – proceeds to gather physical evidence of a crime. It’s hard to imagine – the victim of a violent crime must strip naked, give up her clothes as evidence, and subject her body to a thorough combing by a stranger with a second stranger present. In a hospital. In the middle of the night.
She takes her clothes off over the plastic cloth. She deposits her undergarments in one of the baggies. The physician combs her head hair with a comb. Later, her pubic hair is searched with a fine-toothed comb in the hope that there are fibers or hairs left behind. Sometimes the doctor might pull out some of her own hairs – head or pubic – to provide the comparison. The physician swabs any place on the body that may have come in contact with the perpetrator’s bodily fluids. Sometimes blood is taken. She has a a pelvic exam – stirrups included. She is asked a hundred questions about weapons, positions, environment.
After an hour, two hours, four hours, I can go home. She is usually discharged after me. I make sure she has all her belongings. I get her some clothes if she had to release hers to the rape evidence collection kit which is maintained as a record of evidence for…ever…. I ask if the center can call her to follow up – When should we call you? When is a safe time?
She goes home or to wherever we have determined is a safe place for now. I go home and go to sleep and try not to think about it anymore. I stopped volunteering as a victim’s advocate a few years ago because I moved out to the ‘burbs and it was too far to go anymore. And honestly, it’s hard. I did it for nearly three years and it was time for a break.
I’ve been thinking about this for two reasons. Firstly, in the wake of the hurricane, there have been requests for volunteers of all kinds. I kind of adhere to the “each according to his ability” philosophy of volunteering. I personally cannot handle the elderly. The elderly ones who need volunteers don’t have much support, etc etc and it makes me very very very sad. But I can handle – could handle – being a rape victim’s advocate. Lots of people say they couldn’t handle that. I’m sure they couldn’t, but I can. I do a different kind of volunteering now, though. I won’t say I volunteer to help because I found the joy of volunteering so wonderful, but I found the pain of turning a blind eye to the issues. Not all the volunteering I do these days is on the scale of counseling rape victims, but in some small way, I feel like I’m doing something to help someone.
The other reason this has been on my mind lately, which has nothing to do with volunteering but everything to do with doing what you can, is the information coming out about Gov. Palin. When she was mayor of Wasilla, the city was charging women for the administration of a rape kit. While there may be some charges associated with the hospital you go to, which is unfortunate, there should be no charge for the rape kit. She says she didn’t know about the charges and I say that’s a load of moose poo. Do what you can, when you can, to help.
I think my conclusion here is that if you can do something, do it. If you can help out, if you can look for ways to make something better in your community for everybody, do it. Doesn’t have to be major, can just be something consistent and small. I don’t mean to go all After School Special on you, but this is really something I’ve been mulling over. Also, please reconsider voting the Republican ticket. The sort of woman you want in the White House is not a woman who turns a blind eye to something as big as charging for rape kits while she’s mayor, who endorses shooting animals out of planes (then putting a bounty on their paws), and who has proved her own theories of sex ed to be rather misguided.