California counties turning to at-home rape kits amid COVID-19 threat

Forensic nurses who examine sex assault victims are not available at many California hospitals due to the increased need for resources to treat COVID-19 patients.

So some law enforcement agencies are combining telehealth services with controversial home rape kits as an alternative to examining victims at a hospital.

In Monterey County, prosecutors insist their new protocol is only temporary, and because of close supervision over videoconferencing, they said the evidence will not be compromised.

But some experts have questioned the practice, saying that even with safeguards in place, the evidence’s chain-of-custody could be broken and it could end up getting tossed out in court.

“This wasn’t our first choice,” said Lana Nassoura, a deputy district attorney in Monterey County. “We’re doing this on a case-by-case basis and we are only doing it in cases where we think it’s going to be successful.”

She said her office turned to the new protocol out of necessity. County hospitals have deemed forensic nurses, who perform Sexual Assault Response Team, or “SART,” exams, non-essential and they are not given personal protective equipment.

Forensic nurse works with crime victims, gather medical evidence and provide expert testimony in court.

When a potential sexual assault victim makes a report in Monterey County, law enforcement officials notify a forensic nurse. In appropriate situations, a detective will then drop a SART kit, commonly called a “rape kit,” off at the victim’s home, while the nurse begins conducting an interview and examination over videoconference.

The victims will collect physical evidence on swabs, seal them in an envelop and leave them for the waiting detective to pick up. The victim will then go to a hospital where they will stay in their vehicle and provide a urine sample. He or she will also meet with a victim advocate, Nassoura said.

The county is using kits donated by the Preserve Group, one of two companies, including New York-based MeToo kits, that came under scrutiny last year when they launched at-home sexual assault evidence collection kits for $30 each.

Various states quickly stepped in to stop the companies. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessle sent the companies cease-and-desist orders. Some counties threatened to open criminal investigations.

The major concerns were that at home tests wouldn't treat all the needs of a potential victim and that there’s no guarantee a judge would allow the evidence in court.

“In this time there are some things we have to do differently, but there are some things that I think cannot be sacrificed,” Jennifer Shen, the former director of the San Diego Police Department’s crime lab, said in an interview with KTVU.

“It’s just very difficult for a victim to be able to examine his or herself and get the evidence in the way that it needs to be collected,” she said.

FILE ART - Rape kit

But Jane Mason, a former FBI agent and the founder of Preserve Group, said she created the company for sexual assault victims who don’t go to authorities. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an estimated 80% of sexual assault victims don't report the crimes.

“Most victims don’t come forward at all,” she said. “And a huge majority don’t save evidence at all. This would be an option for them.”

Mason stopped selling her products, but has been giving them away to various law enforcement agencies in the meantime.

Nassoura said Monterey County chose to use the Preserve kits because the swabs can be sealed when they are still wet. Swabs that go into SART kits used at hospitals need to dried before they are placed in an envelope.

The district attorney’s office collected its first kit under the new protocol on April 5. The next test will come if any investigations lead to an arrest and prosecution.

Evan Sernoffsky is an investigative reporter for KTVU. Email Evan at and follow him on Twitter @EvanSernoffsky