For years, authorities have faced a serious problem in sexual assault cases: Victims often do not report the crime for several days, and by then, it's too late to gather crucial medical evidence.
Now two Maryland counties are experimenting with so-called "Jane Doe" rape examination kits, which allow victims to have DNA and other evidence from an assault collected and stored, without involving police. The materials are sealed and stored in case the victim changes her mind and reports the attack.
Victims' advocates say the new program -- which will become available statewide in January -- gives victims time to recover from the initial trauma of a sexual assault and to carefully weigh a decision about pursuing criminal charges.
After thinking it over, more will report the crime, said Jennifer Pollitt Hill, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Jane Doe programs address "the problem of law enforcement being the gatekeeper. [Under the current system], if victims don't want to deal with law enforcement and change their mind tomorrow, we've lost evidence."
The statewide expansion of Jane Doe programs, now available in Cecil and Allegany counties, was triggered by a federal initiative. States that don't adopt such programs by Jan. 9 will lose some federal funds.
About 62 percent of rapes and sexual assaults across the U.S. in 2005 were not reported, according to the most recent Department of Justice statistics. Among the attacks that were reported, delayed reporting was the norm, said Gail Reid, director of the emergency program at Turnaround, an organization that serves sexual assault victims in Baltimore City and County.
"When a victim comes to the hospital, they are traumatized," Pollitt Hill said. "They just want to go home and go to bed. They don't want to deal with police, the long length and wait.
"But then they go home, and wake up the next day. They've showered, eaten, used the bathroom and smoked, and basically ruined all of the evidence, and they change their mind. And there's nothing we can do for them" in terms of gathering DNA.
Such delays can hamper a criminal case. In Jane Doe cases, prosecutors say they likely will lose other evidence from the location of the attack, such as fingerprints or bloody sheets, and serial rapists will have time to target more victims.
"The ability to interview people at the scene, to find people who may have seen or heard something, is compromised," said Leo Ryan, a deputy state's attorney in Baltimore County. "Memory fades."
For a Jane Doe report to even be an option, victims must get to a hospital within three days of an assault. Otherwise, everyday activities will destroy bodily fluids, and over time, tears, cuts and bruises will heal.
Given that short time frame, anonymous reporting will not overwhelm the system, said Joyce Miller, a forensic nurse coordinator at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center, where all adult rape victims in the city are examined.
Mercy conducted 183 rape exams in 2006 and expects an increase of about 50 cases per year once the Jane Doe program launches, Miller said. Currently, Mercy nurses do not collect evidence unless police authorize it, and some victims may request a Jane Doe exam when police decline to pursue the case.
"That's between the detectives and the victim," Miller said. "The story has to meet the elements of a crime. ... Some of them decide to go home."
The Western Maryland Health System has stored rape kits from five Jane Does since its program started Dec. 1, 2005, said Debi Wolford, a nurse and the forensic program coordinator at the Cumberland hospital. None of the women has returned to report the crime, she said.
"I want them all to report, and we try that first," Wolford said. "We talk to them about who would be responding to the hospital. We tell them a little bit about what we know about the police process.
"If they say, 'No, no, no,' then we tell them about Jane Doe. They don't all take that either. Some of them just don't want to reflect backward. They don't want to think about it."
Allegany County's Combined Criminal Investigation Unit is holding one Jane Doe kit now, Wolford said. Swabs of bodily fluids, detailed descriptions of injuries, clothing, and hair clippings are stored in 14- by 11-inch sealed white envelopes.
The forensic nurse signs the seal to prevent tampering, and Wolford said a letter is paper-clipped to the front of the kit, a portion of which reads: "Please do not open, destroy or send to the Maryland State Police Crime Lab. A forensic nurse examiner from the Western Maryland Health System will notify you of the date to destroy if the victim has not reported within the time period."
Under the new program, each locality can determine how long its Jane Doe medical evidence is retained. Cecil and Allegany counties store the evidence for 90 days, but Baltimore police want to refrigerate the kits for about one year, said Sterling Clifford, a department spokesman.
Col. John M. Bevilacqua, chief of the criminal investigations division, "wants to keep them longer rather than shorter," Clifford said. "A lot of victims come forward relatively late in the game, and sexual predators often have multiple victims before they're caught. Keeping more physical evidence around longer is obviously helpful when we want to prosecute someone for multiple sex crimes."
City officials are launching a series of meetings among prosecutors, police, victim advocates and medical personnel this week to determine how long and where the evidence will be stored.
For those who have never been a victim of a sex crime, the choice to report may seem to be an easy one. But it's not, according to Emily, a White Marsh woman who said she was raped at age 14 by an 18-year-old acquaintance. (The Sun does not identify sexual assault victims; Emily, who has participated in Turnaround programs, agreed to be interviewed if her last name was not used.)
She reported the incident to Baltimore County police -- but not until weeks later. Emily said police did not file charges, explaining to her that they lacked enough physical evidence.
"This sounds crazy, but I didn't truly know what happened until about a week later," she said. "It was Election Day, I know, because we were off of school. I woke up, and I was just like, 'Oh my gosh, I said no. I said no. And he didn't listen. And I tried pushing him away.'
"I ran down to my sister and told her that. And she was like, 'Well, Em, that's rape. That's serious.' I was shocked. I was 14. I couldn't grasp it all."
It's been almost eight years since the attack, and Emily wishes she had done it all differently -- that she had never washed her stained sheets or clothes, and that she had reported the assault in time to get a rape exam at a hospital.
She sees both benefits and problems with anonymous reporting.
"I hear from a lot of other survivors, who feel that when they talk to the cops, they're being victimized all over again," she said. "That's the sad part. But a Jane Doe [program] would give people time to secure evidence and get their thoughts together as much as they can. ...
"At the same time, somebody did something bad to you. They need to be put away. I don't think a lot of time should be given ... because if they waste time, then that person could be right back on the streets or in somebody else's house doing the same thing, or worse, end up killing the person."
Reid of Turnaround said she hopes anonymous reporting will begin forcing medical and law enforcement agencies to bring in advocates earlier in the process -- to "help the victim make some decisions." Still, anonymous reporting is just one step in building a more victim-friendly process, she said.
"Sometimes it's hard for me to encourage women to report," Reid said. "Women who do go through the criminal justice system do worse in terms of their own recovery and symptoms because it's so traumatic."