Rachel Marshall / (415) 416-4468 / Rachel.Marshall@sfgov.org
SAN FRANCISCO, CA—Today, District Attorney Chesa Boudin announced that the San Francisco Office of the Chief Medical Examiner will begin a pilot program to expand testing of all toxicology samples from sexual assault survivors from two days to five days, allowing for samples from survivors to be tested for sedative agents in a much broader time frame following a sexual assault. The new protocol is borne out of a collaborative effort by the San Francisco Sexual Assault Response Team (SART), including but not limited to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, the District Attorney’s Office, and the Department of Public Health’s Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital (ZSFG) to expand the testing window following sexual assaults. This change is intended to better enable survivors of sexual assault to obtain justice, particularly in instances where there may have been a Drug Facilitated Sexual Assault (DFSA). This new policy is believed to be a first-in-the-nation and includes the broadest protocol for this kind of blood toxicology testing nationwide.
“Victims of sexual assault crimes are among the most vulnerable crime survivors, given the intimate nature of sex crimes. We hope to create as many tools as possible to gather evidence that can help survivors secure justice,” said District Attorney Boudin. “We are pleased that San Francisco’s Medical Examiner’s Office has developed this pilot—something our office has been pushing for—to allow as many survivors as possible to obtain evidence that can be helpful in prosecutions of sexual assault crimes in San Francisco. This interdisciplinary approach to better serving our community is an example of the collaboration among the various agencies and advocacy groups that is the hallmark of the SART.”
Chief Forensic Toxicologist and UCSF Professor Dr. Luke Rodda is leading the pilot program. Recent improvements in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s forensic toxicology testing methodologies have enabled the Office to implement the new protocol. Newly developed and validated methods analyze drugs and their metabolites at lower concentrations and may now allow for their detection in survivors for longer periods of time. As a result, blood or urine samples can be collected for testing up to five days (or 120 hours) after a sexual assault has occurred. These developments aim to continue to improve the detectability of drugs in DFSA cases in San Francisco. The pilot also builds on previous success in recent years that reduced the time interval from incident to sample collection.
Unique to sexual assault casework, improvements in detecting drugs at very low concentrations is vital for improving the chances of justice for the survivors. “We are proud to be able to provide such a service that we have developed that permits medical providers to broaden the collection period,” Dr. Rodda stated. “It allows us to obtain potentially valuable evidence of substances in a sexual assault survivor’s system in a much broader time frame.”
Dr. Sarah Metz, Director of the UCSF Division of Trauma Recovery Services, also explained the importance of the pilot. “Expanding the window for this evidence collection affords survivors more time to decide whether or not they want evidence collected,” she said. “While we encourage evidence to be collected as soon as is feasible to avoid any loss or deterioration of the evidence, this expansion allows survivors to catch their breath before having to make this important decision. We are always striving to enhance our trauma-informed response, and we are excited that the technology is in step.”
According to the Office of the Medical Examiner, the new protocol also increases efficiency, allowing hospital and forensic staff to collect blood and urine samples as a matter of course during the crucial early period when a survivor first presents after an incident, rather than limiting the time frame to do so—which often meant samples were not evaluated forensically. If a test on the fifth day fails to detect a substance, a survivor is no worse off for having had a sample tested. If there is no substance detected in a survivor’s sample, it means only that a substance was not detected at the time of the testing—the absence of a substance detected in a sample does not mean it had never been there.
San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen, who spearheaded legislation to create the Office of Sexual Harassment and Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP), praised the innovative pilot. “Surviving sexual assault is a traumatic experience. Deciding to report that assault is a very difficult decision, and many survivors choose never to report,” she explained. “We will be better positioned to stop perpetrators from assaulting again if we give survivors the space and time that is needed to make decisions on how to address the crime. In San Francisco, we will continue to reform the system to be survivor-centered, and this is an important step forward.”
Sexual assault survivor and women’s rights advocacy groups heralded the pilot program. Juana Flores, the Executive Director of Mujeres Unidas y Activas, which works to advocate for and provide direct services to immigrant women, said, “We applaud the collaboration to create more tools to support sexual assault survivors. It is critical to provide more time for survivors to assess their options right after an incident occurs. This is a very vulnerable time when their principal focus is finding safety and beginning the journey to recover from trauma.”
“Aplaudimos la colaboración para crear más herramientas en el apoyo de sobrevivientes de asalto sexual. Es crítico proveer más tiempo para que las sobrevivientes puedan evaluar sus opciones justo después de que ocurre un incidente. Este es un momento muy vulnerable cuando su enfoque principal es encontrar seguridad y empezar el camino de recuperación del trauma.”
The Department of Public Health’s Rape Treatment Center and Child and Adolescent Support, Advocacy, & Resource Center, and Special Victims’ Unit also played pivotal roles in the launch of this pilot.