Faculty voice:

Rebecca Campbell: Defining a problem

Oct. 16, 2019

Rebecca Campbell is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University and serves as one of two presidential advisers to support and drive the university’s efforts to address relationship violence and sexual misconduct issues. She is also chair of the RVSM Expert Advisory Workgroup at MSU and was recently honored for her contributions by Crain's Detroit Business as one of the 2019 Notable Women in Education Leadership.

[NOTE: The conversation below discusses content that may be triggering for survivors of violence]

Campbell’s research focuses on violence against women and children with an emphasis on sexual assault and specifically understanding how contact with the legal and medical systems affect adult, adolescent and pediatric victims' psychological and physical health. She was the lead researcher on the National Institute of Justice funded project to study Detroit's untested rape kits.

The excerpt below is repurposed content from Campbell's recent interview with “Manifold,” on her research, the current status of untested rape kits and the implications of the results of those kits for both the victims and society at large, including ethical and privacy concerns related to DNA testing.

The victim's body in a sexual assault is a crime scene. A rape kit refers to the collection of forensic evidence from a victim's body.

Since the 1970's, it’s been recommended that sexual assault victims go to a hospital emergency department and have a healthcare professional collect that evidence. A doctor or specially trained nurse conducts a head to toe assessment of the victim to detect any injuries, treat those injuries and to evaluate the risk of sexually transmitted infections. The samples collected are boxed up in a kit and then the kit can be released to law enforcement as evidence of a reported crime.

The kit is supposed to be submitted to a forensic crime laboratory, but what we're discovering in jurisdictions all throughout the United States is that's not what's happening for various reasons, including lack of resources.

Police put it in the police department crime scene storage facility and it never goes to a forensic lab. Trying to get an exact number on how many kits are untested in the U.S. is difficult because the tracking systems, the IT systems in most law enforcement agencies, are pretty rudimentary.

In Detroit, we thought we’d have a count of untested kits in about 20 minutes... we had the number in about six months after a manual counting auditing process. If you take the problem we had in Detroit and multiply it by all the law enforcement agencies throughout the U.S., that's why it's hard to get an exact count (current estimates are 200-400k across the U.S.).

This is a real concern that we're having right now and goes back to how you define the problem. Is the problem that we're not testing rape kits? In which case with legislation, you can fix the problem so to speak by just turning in the kit and getting it tested. There, done, check.

But is the problem we're trying to solve the criminal justice response to sexual assault — to truly test kits, investigate, hold perpetrators accountable and really improve public safety?

If that's your goal, then you have to not only test the kits, you have to do something with the results.

Listen to the interview in its entirety for more on Campbell’s work with law enforcement and her recommendations on how scientists and the criminal justice system can better work together to solve sexual assault cases and bring justice and closure to the victims.