Trigger warning: This article contains details of rape and sexual assault that may be upsetting. For anyone in the NWGA region who is struggling with rape, sexual assault, abuse and its associated effects (PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc.) please reach out to the Sexual Assault Center of NWGA (www.sacnwga.org) or find your nearest crisis center (https://centers.rainn.org/).

*Name has been changed for protection

Breaking Down the Backlog: An Inside Look at Rape and Reporting

Faith* pulled up to the police department and sat in her car.

Her mind was reeling from the events of the past 14 hours. Flashes of memories battered against the edges of her mind. His smell. The sounds he made. The pain she felt at the tender points of her body. She was still wearing the torn dress, the shoes. The blood-stained underwear.

“I was slowly unravelling,” Faith recalls. “I just couldn’t really grip my reality. I was starting to have symptoms of PTSD and I wasn’t processing it. It’s poison to feel like that.”

Hands shaking, she got out her phone. She looked up and called the number for the National Sexual Assault Hotline. The person on the other end of the line looked up Faith’s nearest crisis center. Within minutes, she was talking on the phone with an advocate at the Sexual Assault Center of Northwest Georgia.

Faith had been raped, and what’s more, her rapist had been her closest friend. This is not at all unusual. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) reports that eight out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. Also, 39 percent of reported rapes are by an acquaintance and 33 percent are by a current or former spouse or partner.

Faith had said no, but it made no difference and she couldn’t fight him off. She described her rapist’s behavior during the crime.

“The whole time he raped me, he didn’t speak,” she says. “This was someone I knew really well, and he raped me for almost an hour and didn’t speak, not a word.”

The time that ticked by afterward was nightmarish. Faith didn’t know what to do. If she tried to leave, she was afraid he would attack her again. In the end, she curled up to make herself as small as possible. She breathed into silence and tried to disappear. Her body was throbbing and heavy. Her mind completely shut down.

She woke up a few hours later.

“I went into the bathroom and it was almost like a bad dream,” she says. “I peed and I wiped and there was all this blood. That’s when the reality of it started to hit me.”

Since she had been dropped off the day before by another friend, her rapist – who had been, until the night before, the person she was closest to in the world – drove her home.

Faith’s psyche tried to process the events of the night. Still in the clothes she was raped in, she reached out to a friend who said that she too had been raped, and by the same person. But that friend told Faith reporting it wouldn’t do any good.

Then, Faith went to her rapist’s workplace to confront him.

“I know that sounds crazy, but he had been my best friend. We stood in the parking lot. I said ‘You know this morning when I asked you if you realized I didn’t want to sleep with you last night?’ And he said ‘Yeah, I just thought you meant that you didn’t want to sleep (in the same bed together) and we didn’t.’”

Hours later, she parked at the Rome City and Floyd County Police Departments and reached out to the crisis hotline. Then Kim Davis, executive director of the Sexual Assault Center, met Faith at the SAC door.  

“She offered me the restroom and she walked me through what was going to happen,” says Faith. “They had a detective on the way and she told me they were going to ask me some really hard questions, but just be honest and don’t be afraid because (she and the advocates) were there. They supported me and they believed me.”

"If everyone was picking up their kits and processing them the way they’re supposed to be, I would not have all these kits in here because over a hundred victims didn’t just walk in.”
This Is Your Brain on Rape

If you’ve ever experienced a traumatic event – a car wreck, for example – you’ll know there are some details you can recall clear as day while others remain fuzzy.

That’s because our brains are hardwired to protect us. During a traumatic event, your hippocampus (the part of the brain that houses memories, emotions and your ability to move your body) becomes triggered by stress hormones and overloaded with information.

The hippocampus is also responsible for consolidating short-term memories into long-term memories and records spatial memory, or the information about the environment where the trauma occurred.

“During an assault, the hippocampus becomes overactive and can’t make those connections, so it’s hard to remember details afterward,” explains Alice Williams, a licensed professional counselor based in Rome, Ga. who works with trauma victims.

This is why victims of rape can’t remember precisely how the event played out, even if they were stone-cold sober when the assault occurred. The anatomy of our brains is to blame.

In the 2018 case of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Brett Kavanaugh of assault in the midst of his Supreme Court confirmation process, this is what likely occurred, says Williams. Ford was accused of lying when she couldn’t recall details of the alleged assault that happened three decades before.

“They don’t remember and a lot of people start victim-blaming. Like, oh if it happened to them, why can’t they remember it?” says Williams. “But that’s the brain’s way of protecting them. It’s our built-in defense mechanism. It would be too devastating to remember everything.”

In addition to the hippocampus glitching on recording memories, Williams explains that the body can completely shut down.

“It’s the fight or flight response in your brain,” she says. “When someone is assaulted, the amygdala goes into overdrive and the response is more often flight. You transition into a numb state of shock and can literally lose movement. Your body won’t function,” she says.

After a car wreck, do you freeze? Cry? Get angry? Employ your dark sense of humor to lighten the tension? Everyone handles trauma differently, because everyone has a unique personality. Williams says how you personally handle shock dictates how you act afterward.

“When I worked rape cases as a victim’s advocate, sometimes victims would go into distraught mode,” explains Williams. “Others would talk normally; they’d even laugh. They’d crack jokes. Detectives who hadn’t been through a lot of trauma and assault training would say ‘Well, I don’t believe they were really raped.’ And I’d say ‘That’s just how they’re handling it right now.’”

Faith says she experienced judgement from the officers who responded to the SAC while she was telling them what happened to her. They were skeptical of the fact she didn’t immediately try to leave the scene of her rape.

“I was in a part of town that I didn’t feel safe in, my clothes were ripped,” she says. “I didn’t want to leave where I was. I didn’t want to alarm the person who had attacked me.”

For her, the term “sexual assault” was easier to digest at first. Even after admitting that it was rape, it would take her time to come to terms with the word itself.

“The detectives repeatedly asked me if I had been raped and I kept saying no,” she says. “And then he said, ‘Well, you’re telling me that he penetrated you without consent. You have bruises all over you… did he rape you?’ It took about three times of him asking me for me to really say it out loud. ‘Yes. He raped me.’”

If Faith simply went on about her business and pretended the rape hadn’t happened, she wouldn’t have to change anything, she says.

“To accept ‘rape’ meant that my life was going to be radically different,” she continues. “I had to heal from something. It meant that I had to deal with it.”

Faith developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She lived in fear and sometimes when she looked at other men – even her friends – she would see the image of her rapist. She also had Dissociative Identity Disorder, the mind’s way of seeing oneself from a different perspective, so as to take her out of her body in order to cope.

“I would be doing the dishes and suddenly I would feel like I was above looking down on my body,” says Faith. “I was trying to function like a normal person, but I wasn’t. I was inside myself someplace screaming and writhing.”

Faith found the strength to speak out, and talking about her rape became a way to draw the poison out. But she ended up isolating herself more and even lost her job.

“I had to talk about it, but it pushed people away. I lost 99 percent of my friends and the ones who stuck around eventually got sick of it. I was in so much pain.”

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The Sexual Assault Center of Northwest Georgia serves Floyd, Chattooga, Gordon, Polk and Bartow Counties. In addition to the 24-hour crisis line, the center assists victims with on-site medical exams, counseling and criminal justice advocacy.

While she was at the SAC, advocates and trained medical staff collected forensic evidence of Faith’s rape.

“They took pictures of my body, and did an internal exam. Your kit also includes your testimony and DNA samples from the swabs,” Faith explains.

Faith had bruises on her body because she had been chased and beaten during her rape. That evidence also makes it into the rape kit.

“The examiners circled each one of the bruises and they numbered each one with a marker and took pictures of that, too,” she says.

Because of the brutal nature of assaults, the exams themselves are invasive and exhausting. But rape kit exams are necessary to collect hard-and-fast DNA evidence to send to a crime lab in the event the case makes it to trial.

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Therein lies an enormous issue: the rape kit backlog.

In January 2017, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that 10,314 kits were backlogged and waiting to be tested at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. When this information was brought to light, Georgia developed a statewide initiative to test the kits. In April 2018, the Associated Press reported that under 2,900 kits remained of the backlogged ones. But keep in mind, that’s in addition to an average of 300 new kits the lab receives each month, according to the GBI.

Georgia’s law does not require law enforcement agencies to track rape kits. However, according to endthebacklog.org, a statewide tracking system is being developed.

The road to holding the criminal justice system accountable for rape cases in Georgia has been a long and harrowing one, says Davis, and the journey isn’t close to being over.

“The kit goes to the GBI. They process it based on when it’s delivered and the nature of the crime,” says Davis.

But depending on what year the assault occurred, the kit could have never made it to the crime lab at all. In the past, law enforcement officials got to decide whether a victim’s rape or assault would receive a forensic exam in the first place. Money was a big factor because law enforcement agencies paid for the kit assets, explains Davis.

“Before, nine times out of 10, you’d have a victim in the ER and if law enforcement didn’t believe them, they didn’t get an exam,” Davis continues. “There wasn’t anything we could do about it. We couldn’t afford to do the exams because we didn’t have enough money to pay for the equipment.”

Rape kits are expensive. It costs crisis centers or law enforcement agencies upwards of $1,000 for rape kit materials, not including medication to help prevent STDs or pregnancies from rape. Now, crisis centers such as the SAC can bill Georgia’s Crime Victim’s Compensation for much of the cost.

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It also costs between $1,000 and $1,500 for crime labs to test the kits, and that money comes from state funds. So full servicing of one rape kit can amount to $2,500 or more.

In 2011, Georgia’s law changed so that anyone who claimed to have been assaulted had the right to a rape kit exam. But though an exam was done, if the victim didn’t officially report the crime, there was no rhyme or reason as to whether the kit would be sent to the GBI, says Davis.

“If a client didn’t report the rape, we’d keep it for a year,” says Davis. “At the end of the year, we would usually destroy it. If law enforcement did not believe her, and did not want to move forward with the case, then the kit either sat in our fridge or it would sit in their evidence room forever and it never went to get tested.”

But in 2016, Georgia passed a law stating that all kits are required be taken to the crime lab. From the moment the kit is completed, law enforcement has 96 hours to retrieve it. Then they have 30 days to send it to the GBI.

“They’re not supposed to have a choice at this point. I can’t promise you they’re sending them to the GBI in every case because I have a refrigerator full of evidence and it’s not just non-reports. I also have a shelving unit that’s full of rape kits,” says Davis, adding that some of the kits date back to 2017.

“If everyone was picking up their kits and processing them the way they’re supposed to be, I would not have all these kits in here because over a hundred victims didn’t just walk in,” says Davis. “This evidence should not be here.”

Part II of the Breaking Down the Backlog series unpacks issues the criminal justice system faces in prosecuting crimes of sexual assault. It also examines the problems the GBI faces regarding the amount of untested kits. Part II will be available exclusively on ReadV3.com.