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Policy & Advocacy
Through our Policy & Advocacy programs, Joyful Heart seeks healing and justice for survivors of violence and abuse. We work in partnership with federal, state and local government, non-profit organizations, law enforcement, advocates and survivors to bring attention, funding and reforms to improve criminal justice responses to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.
The cornerstone of our Policy & Advocacy work is a focus on sexual violence response and our effort to end the backlog of untested rape kits. Across the United States, there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits—each containing DNA evidence collected from a survivor's body in the aftermath of a rape. When tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown perpetrator, confirm the presence of a known suspect, affirm a survivor's account of the attack, connect evidence from individual crime scenes to serial rapists and exonerate innocent suspects.
Yet hundreds of thousands of rape kits languish on shelves in law enforcement and crime lab storage facilities across the country.
It was in Los Angeles that we first turned our attention to the rape kit backlog. As a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, Sarah Tofte, now Joyful Heart’s Senior Director of Policy & Advocacy, published a report that documented the discovery of over 12,600 untested rape kits in Los Angeles City and County. Since contributing our expertise and advocating to end the backlog in Los Angeles, Joyful Heart staff have expanded our rape kit advocacy efforts: participating in the first White House Roundtable on Sexual Violence, launching ENDTHEBACKLOG.org, the only website dedicated to shedding light on—and ending—the rape kit backlog, testifying before Congress on the backlog and working with local partners in Detroit on the National Institute of Justice's first-ever action-research grant to study how Detroit's backlog of over 11,000 kits began and how to end it.
For all the progress made, there is still much work to be done. Backlogs of untested rape kits have been reported all across the county—from California to Connecticut, from Mephis to Milwaukee. Each untested kit is a lost opportunity for healing and justice.
The rape kit backlog represents a failure of the criminal justice system to protect survivors and hold perpetrators accountable. Testing rape kits sends the message that we take sexual assault seriously—that survivors and their cases matter. Not testing rape kits sends the opposite message.
As part of our efforts to end the backlog with reforms that are just, compassionate and survivor-centered, Joyful Heart is conducting critical research for a report—the first of its kind—on how jurisdictions across the country currently approach victim notification, the process of notifying a survivor of the status of her rape kit, and lessons learned in developing those procedures. Since our research began, we have conducted interviews with advocates, members of law enforcement, prosecutors, researchers, crime lab analysts, policymakers and survivors in jurisdictions throughout the U.S. to gain a wide range of personal, professional and expert perspectives on best practices for victim notification.
“There are times [when] it feels very old, and there are times when it feels like it happened yesterday. If I could know that the kit was available and could be tested even 25 years later and the DNA could be identified…I would be able to have that information [for] the rest of my life.”
In addition to our rape kit reform efforts, Joyful Heart, along with a coalition of over 300 advocacy groups and service providers, advocated for the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). In response to our collective efforts, Congress passed the reauthorization on February 28, 2013. Since the enactment of this landmark legislation in 1994, VAWA has saved countless lives, protected families, given a voice to survivors and provided invaluable training to the criminal justice community. We invite you to explore all our current and recent Policy & Advocacy programs:
- Rape kit reform. Joyful Heart’s efforts to bring attention, funding and reforms to end the backlog of untested rape kits
he first website dedicated to shedding light on the rape kit backlog and the powerful results of testing rape kit evidence.
- Collaboration with Detroit. Our work as a national partner on the National Institute of Justice’s grant to end Detroit’s backlog of 11,000 untested rape kits
- Rape kit reform in Los Angeles. Advocacy efforts to help law enforcement secure funding reduce their rape kit backlog and ongoing efforts to ensure Los Angeles continues to prioritize rape kit testing.
- Victim Notification. Research and advocacy to ensure survivors are notified of the status of their cases and rape kits.
- VAWA Reauthorization. Advocacy to reauthorize the nation’s singular piece of legislation to prevent violence against women and dedicate resources to these crimes.
- You can also explore our past initiatives, including DNA reform in New York and our advocacy to restore domestic violence funding in California.