CALIFORNIA – Alongside other “essential” household supplies for sale on Amazon, there’s now a product offered that might give consumers pause: an at-home rape kit.
The “PRESERVEkit,” listed for $29.95, is intended for those who have been sexually assaulted. It is advertised as “containing all of the tools and step-by-step directions needed for the proper collection of evidence if going to the police or medical facility is not an option.”
Few people — prosecutors or advocates for sexual abuse victims — think this is a good idea because the evidence collected would be useless in court and expose the alleged victim to medical risks.
Oddly perhaps, the company behind the kit, the Preserve Group, is headed by a retired FBI special agent, Jane Mason. She was motivated to make the product, according to the company’s website, after working with survivors of sexual assault in her private investigations practice.
A New York startup has proposed a similar product called the “MeToo Kit.” This kit is not yet available, though individuals can place themselves on a wait-list for the product. No price has been made public.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel was the first attorney general to release a statement saying the manufacturer of MeToo Kits was “shamelessly trying to take financial advantage of the ‘Me Too’ movement.” She said evidence in the kits would not stand up in court.
Nessel sent a notice of intended action to the Brooklyn-based company on Aug. 29, stating she had probable cause to believe the company was violating Michigan’s Consumer Protection Act. The MeToo Kits Co. was given 10 days to comply with the act, including agreeing not to sell the kits to Michigan consumers.
Nessel’s communications director, Kelly Rossman-McKinney, said the attorney general is aware of PRESERVEkit, the product already available on Amazon, and though “it’s not being marketed in as misinformed a way, we are likely to be pursuing them with similar requests as what we sent to MeToo Kits.”
North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein also released a statement urging North Carolina consumers to avoid the MeToo Kits. His communications director, Laura Brewer, said the office has launched an investigation into the product.
And Jude Foster, the statewide medical forensic policy coordinator with the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said her organization has also been in conversation with Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison as well as state law enforcement officials about the kits.
Monica Beck, managing legal counsel for the Fierberg National Law Group in Traverse City, Mich., agrees with the attorney general’s assessment that at-home rape kits would not be allowed as evidence in court.
“It brings up very serious evidentiary problems,” said Beck, who represents survivors of sexual assault in civil litigations. “The kits bring up issues of chain of custody and whether the DNA evidence was properly collected.”
The chain of custody is a systematic process intended to show evidence has been collected properly by professionals and not been tainted. This provides a trail of every person who has come in contact with the evidence.
Beck said that evidence in sexual assault trials collected by trained personnel is routinely attacked in court by rape suspects’ defense attorneys.
“Imagine what defense attorneys would do with evidence taken at home,” she said. “Frankly, it’s hard enough for survivors to get justice, and this is just making it even harder.”
In an emailed statement, Mason of the Preserve Group said: “Crime victims give evidence to law enforcement that is admissible in court every day.” She said the reasons evidence is admissible in court vary and “a blanket statement that a victim collecting evidence of sexual assault with an at-home kit does not apply.”
Medical and forensic professionals say the kits leave out other aspects of sexual assault exams that are crucial to survivors.
“We look at the victim from the top of the head to the bottom of their toes,” said Julie Valentine, a forensic nurse and assistant professor at Brigham Young University who has conducted sexual assault evidence collection exams. “The majority of victims also have physical injuries, and a big part of our examination is the assessment, documentation and treatment of those.”
Valentine said nurses collect not only DNA evidence, but also debris, such as carpet fibers, grass and the individual’s clothing. They also might take photos of injuries. She said if cases are prosecuted, forensic nurses are called to testify.
A sexual assault exam can also include medication to prevent sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. A psychological evaluation or referral to mental health and other support resources also might be involved, said Valentine.
“If we have victims who believe that they can collect evidence alone at home, not only do they collect evidence that is not admissible or helpful, neither do they get health care or the victim advocacy help,” Valentine said.
Foster expressed concern about the cost of the home kits. “In Minnesota, we have a state statute and also the Violence Against Women Act allows survivors to access a free medical exam after an assault,” she said. “I have great concern that someone is trying to profit off of people when they have access to a free exam.”
The federal Violence Against Women Act requires states to provide free sexual assault forensic exams if they want to stay eligible for grant funding.
In an emailed response to questions, the founder and CEO of the MeToo Kit Co., Madison Campbell, said if the company can raise enough money, she would like to give away the kits. But of the product’s price tag, she said, “It would be less than the cost of an Uber ride to the hospital.”
Campbell said she is a sexual assault survivor and believes it should be the survivor’s right to capture the evidence in the comfort of their home.
She also said her company was surprised at the backlash. “Our mission is to help survivors of sexual assault who do not have the ability or are willing to go to the police or the hospital to collect time-sensitive DNA evidence,” Campbell wrote via email.
An Amazon spokesperson declined to comment.