Announcing Funds to Test Rape Kits, Biden Recalls a History of Advocating for Women

Vice President Joe Biden earlier this week in Washington. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

Vice President Joe Biden earlier this week in Washington. (NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

In announcing nearly $80 million to test a backlog of rape evidence kits nationwide, Vice President Joe Biden offered personal recollections of his own efforts to stem violence against women—saying the country had made big strides since he first introduced landmark legislation on the subject in 1994.

“This is about one woman at a time: it’s someone whose life has in every way been turned upside down, many times viciously attacked,” Mr. Biden said today at Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Manhattan’s East Side. “It is the ultimate violation. It strips a woman, or a man in some cases, of their dignity, and puts them in this netherland that caused me to write the Violence Against Women Law in the first place.”

Mr. Biden, who is said to be considering a presidential run, was joined today by U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., and actress and advocate Mariska Hargitay, to announce the $79 million in combined federal and city grants that will be distributed nationwide to test more than 60,000 sexual assault evidence kits.

Mr. Vance’s office will distribute $38 million in grants, funded with the city’s $440 million share of an $8.83 billion settlement with French bank BNP Paribas S.A., to 32 jurisdictions in 20 states across the country, paying for approximately 56,475 kits to be tested. (New York tackled its own backlog between 2000 and 2003, when it and the medical examiner’s office tested some 17,000 rape kits.) Ms. Lynch, the former U.S. attorney for Brooklyn, announced a separate $41 million in federal grants that will fund the testing of another 13,500 kits in 20 jurisdictions.

Speaking for about 15 minutes, Mr. Biden recalled the personal stories survivors of sexual assault had told him while he held “thousands” of hours of hearings on the Violence Against Women Act, and the work his late son, Beau Biden, did as attorney general of Delaware to help victims of sexual assaults by ending the statute of limitations on rape. He spoke with great empathy for women, some in attendance, who had been victims of sexual assault and seen evidence sit untested for years. But his speech was also a reminder of his time as a lawmaker and policy maker before his time as vice president—he reminded the crowd he also wrote the law that allowed New York to seize the funds that will pay for some of the rape kit testing—and a chance to make clear his appeal and his credentials with the women voters.

Mr. Biden’s voice rose as he discussed statistics surrounding rape—often debated—and noted that many women simply don’t report the crime. He said he hoped that would change if women had more faith evidence in their cases would be tested thanks to today’s announcement.

“They don’t want to be raped again by the system. They don’t want to go through it all over again, especially when they think that it’s going to be to no avail. What you’ve done here Cy, as the Violence Against Women Act has done, is more and more women are screwing up the courage to do it—and I hear men say, ‘Why wouldn’t you just report it?’ Gimme a break, guys. How many of you would report it?’—are screwing up the courage to do it and come forward,” Mr. Biden said. “And now, because of what you’ve done and what people like my son in Delaware did, they say, ‘Maybe, maybe I will get justice. Maybe someone will pay attention to me.'”

He offered several personal stories from people he knew, each tinged with emotion. There was the women he went to high school with who was raped and had a police officer ask her: “Did you have a climax?” There was the woman who told Mr. Biden that she after being raped, she would come home each day terrified to get out of her car, even in the daylight.

“Six years later, her rape kit was tested. She said, ‘When I found out he was in jail, and we knew who he was, two things happened to me. I knew everyone believed me now,'” Mr. Biden recalled. “And she looked at me and she said, ‘Senator, I can get out of my car. I can get out of my car.’ You guys know what I’m talking about, don’t you.”

Sexual assault evidence kits, more commonly known as rape kits, allow for the collection of evidence that can often be key to prosecution. But the experience can also be traumatic for the victim, who is unable to shower after an assault and is subjected to an invasive gynecological exam—making it all the more galling to advocates that some of the kits never wind up being tested.

Around the country some rape kits have simply sat on evidence room shelves—sometimes because prosecutors or police are unable to spend the roughly $500 to $1,000 per kit to test them in cases where a suspect isn’t immediately apparent. In other cases, the kits were simply forgotten over the years, building up to an amount it becomes costly to test all at once.

“What stands in the way of testing them is money and the will to get the job done,” Mr. Vance said today.

The issue came to light after 11,000 untested rape kits were discovered in Detroit—where they lingered in a city that possessed almost no way to pay for testing them. Large backlogs have since been reported in other jurisdictions: reporting on untested kits in Cleveland led police to clear a backlog there and introduce new laws mandating the testing.

Ms. Lynch, who was sworn in as attorney general in April, said the delays were unacceptable, and that she hoped the funding today would send a message to those sexual assault victims whose trust in the justice system had been shaken.

“This is our pledge to you: we will not forget you. We will not abandon you,” she said. “You are not alone, not now and not ever again.”

Ms. Hargitay, who is best known for portraying Sergeant Olivia Benson, a crusading and empathetic investigator of sexual assaults, on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, also runs the Joyful Heart Foundation—which has made reducing the backlog its top priority. She said the announcement today—the largest single allocation for testing rape kits—was a “historic moment in the work to end this backlog.”

The actress also heaped praise upon Mr. Biden, whom she called her “dear friend” and her “hero.”

“On behalf of survivors whose voices I’m very privileged to bring into this room, I thank you for what you do and who you are,” Ms. Hargitay told the vice president.

Announcing Funds to Test Rape Kits, Biden Recalls a History of Advocating for Women