DIY sex-assault exam kits draw concerns
The Minnesota Office of Higher Education is sounding an alarm after learning that a company that makes self-administered sexual-assault examination kits is marketing those kits to colleges and universities.
The OHE reports that a number of Minnesota campuses have been approached by the New York-based makers of the MeToo Kit, which promises a way for victims and survivors to collect DNA evidence on their own after an assault.
“For the thousands of survivors that choose not to report or go to the hospital, MeToo Kit aims to provide an alternative solution,” reads the company’s website.
The MeToo Kit had been available for preorder online, but as of Thursday, Sept. 19, the website had been greatly scaled back from how it appeared two weeks earlier, with only a message that the kits would be launching soon.
A now-archived snapshot of the website from Sept. 4 details how the kits work, with patients being instructed to swab themselves for evidence, spit into a container and seal those items along with any clothing worn during the assault into the provided packaging for mailing.
The Sept. 4 website snapshot also advertised a mobile app to be used during the process. As of Thursday, the app is not available from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
A second product, the PRESERVEkit, had been available for purchase on Amazon until last week, when production was suspended, the OHE reported. A message on the maker's website cited cease-and-desist orders, "untruths all over the media … and the hostile and threatening atmosphere this has created" as reasons why sales have been suspended.
Kits heavily criticized
The at-home kits have drawn national concern and condemnation from advocates and health care professionals, who say the effort could do far more harm than good. By using a MeToo Kit or similar service, victims and survivors might not be aware of related resources, and experts have warned that evidence collected with at-home kits might not hold up in court.
“These at-home forensic exam kits are concerning both ethically and in their high potential for harm within a Title IX and/or criminal justice process,” the OHE reported, referring to the federal law that requires campuses to investigate an assault allegation as soon as it’s made aware and take steps to protect students.
“While we agree with the premise that victim-survivors should be empowered with options and choices as they navigate their own path of healing and justice, we are concerned that these kits are misleading and exploitative in their efforts to offer victim-survivors a different option to gain control after a traumatizing experience such as sexual assault.”
The kits and the companies that produce them are under investigation by Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison’s office. Attorneys general in Michigan, New York, North Carolina and Oklahoma have sent cease-and-desist letters to kit makers, according to the OHE.
Exams free in Minnesota, Wisconsin
By law in Minnesota, a forensic medical exam is available at no cost to any victim or survivor and can be conducted up to 10 days after an assault. Exams are provided by a SANE nurse — short for “sexual assault nurse examiner” in a hospital setting.
Victims may choose whether they report an assault to police regardless of whether they are examined by a SANE nurse.
If a victim does choose to report, the SANE exam also functions to ensure that any evidence collected is preserved and tracked using protocols to ensure the admissibility of that evidence in court.
Sara Niemi, executive director of the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, or PAVSA, reiterated the importance of SANE exams and her organization’s efforts toward supporting a survivor’s holistic well-being after a sexual assault.
“Whether or not someone decides to report to law enforcement, a SANE exam is done by a trained professional, if a survivor chooses, to assess the immediate needs,” Niemi said. “The exam includes a head-to-toe examination, preventative medications offered for pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections, assessment for acute injuries, forensic evidence collected and preserved with a chain of custody, photographs taken (and) history documented.”
PAVSA also has advocates available who can accompany victims and survivors during an exam and assess whether there are any immediate safety needs or planning needed, Niemi said, as well as help connect people to mental-health care providers and other services.
In a news release earlier this month, the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MnCASA) noted that with eight in 10 rapes committed by someone known to the victim, DNA evidence collection isn’t the sole crucial focus of a forensic exam.
“We want to send a clear message to the public that these kits are not a reasonable alternative to a forensic medical exam, nor do they provide access to the confidential resources and support provided by a sexual-assault advocate,” Jude Foster, MnCASA’s statewide medical forensic policy program coordinator, said in the release.