You’ve met Martha, Liam, and Bella— three performance poets and high school students speaking out against injustice in the Asheville area. Now, meet Nora, who brings us her poem, “163,” making us aware of the number of rape kits backlogged in Buncombe County, and the injustice this does to the survivors of sexual assault. At YMCo, we wanted to know why this number is so high and what can be done to change it. We contacted Our VOICE, an organization that “serves all individuals in Buncombe County affected by sexual assault and abuse,” and we spoke with their Court Advocate, Stefanie Gonzales. Stefanie shed some light for us on the process of reporting sexual assault in Buncombe County, why rape kits don’t always get tested, and what we, and especially our teenagers, can do to prevent that number from rising any higher.
Stefanie told us that a survivor has several options for reporting sexual assault, but, if they choose to file a formal police report, the case will be handed over to a Special Victims Unit detective for investigation. Once the investigation is done, it will be handed to the District Attorney’s office, “who will then make a decision on whether or not to prosecute the case…so, it can be a lengthy process.” Stefanie said that her role in this process, as Court Advocate, is to ensure survivors that they are not alone in it, that she and Our VOICE are there to support them as they navigate it.
She said that one of the primary reasons for the “163” kits backlogged in Buncombe County is, “there’s just a lack of resources, whether that’s resources to test the kits [or] resources to pay the people who test the kits…not having enough manpower to test all these.” She said that, at the moment, all of the kits from Buncombe County are being sent to the state lab in Raleigh, where they are also running tests on evidence from a variety of other cases, including murder and DUI. She said, “What happens is the rape kits sort of just get pushed to the back there and there’s just this long waiting list for these things to get tested.” A new lab will soon be opened in Western North Carolina, though, and Stefanie says she is hopeful that this will help decrease the number of cases in the backlog.
Stefanie said that another reason for the backlog is that “a rape kit isn’t always going to be the most telling evidence” against a perpetrator. “What we know about sexual assault is that people are assaulted by somebody that they know, whether it’s a friend, or an acquaintance, or a partner, or a former partner, whoever.” She said that while a rape kit may show that two people had sex, it can’t always differentiate whether or not it was consensual, “unless there’s trauma or injury involved.” Rape kits are helpful if the perpetrator is a stranger, but Stefanie said, “those cases are rare.”
For these reasons, Stefanie told us that she often has to be upfront with survivors that, “if their case is ever to see a courtroom, it’s likely to be two years later…It’s a long process, and that’s not uncommon.” Our VOICE encourages survivors to seek counseling services during this waiting period because “the healing process doesn’t have to rely on outcome in the criminal justice system, and often it can’t.”
While most of us don’t have the skill sets to be court advocates or counselors, Stefanie offered up some suggestions on how we can assist in this healing process by working for justice for the survivors. “We can advocate for survivors.” She said there are national organizations, like ENDTHEBACKLOG, that we can get involved with. We can also do exactly what Nora has done, “draw attention to the issue….exposing the fact that there is a backlog is the best way to start.”
Nora said that this was her motivation for writing “163.” She said that through writing a paper for school on the backlog, she realized that “this sort of thing happens everywhere, so I thought I would write about it and bring attention to it.” Her challenge for other young people is “just to hear about it. If someone talks about it, don’t walk away.”
Stefanie’s challenge for young people is to “be active bystanders…if you hear a friend make a sexist comment, make a homophobic joke, making some sort of comment like that, [be] able to say, ‘Hey, that’s not okay.'” She said, “Ultimately, the most important thing we can teach teenagers is that they just need to believe victims of sexual violence and assault…If they don’t know how to support a friend or family member who has gone through that, ultimately just saying, ‘I believe you that this happened to you,’ really can go a long way.”
For more advice from Stefanie on how we, as adults, can help teenagers prevent sexual assault, and for a resource on talking with your youth about it, check out this study guide we’ve created. For more from Nora, check out this video interview with her. Let us know how youth are getting involved in your community to “end the backlog,” by emailing us at [email protected]!