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  • Writer's pictureScott Shellenberger

Maryland bans controversial at-home rape kits, plans to ramp up resources for survivors

Shannon Lilly | Wed, May 8th 2024 | Fox45 News | Original Source


FOX BALTIMORE – Controversial ‘do-it-yourself’ rape kits are now outlawed in Maryland as lawmakers also pledge to ramp up care for sexual assault survivors.


Governor Wes Moore solidifying the decision in April to ban the kits, when he approved an emergency bill passed by lawmakers in the 2024 legislative session. The law took effect immediately upon the governor’s signature.


Under the ban, Leda Health, and other companies marketing commercial self-administered sexual assault kits, could no longer sell or distribute those kits in the state. The move made Maryland the third state in the country to outright ban the kits through legislation, while many other states attorneys across the nation have issued cease and desists against the company.


“I think it’s a win for sexual assault survivors,” said Senator Shelly Hettleman.


Senator Hettleman was one of the sponsors of the bill, and said it was the reporting of Fox 45 News, in part, that raised the alarm over misinformation being spread by Leda Health in the Summer.


“Absolutely, no question. Last summer we started hearing from the media. We started hearing from local health professionals, the health department, colleges, universities, sororities.”


It all started in August with an email sent to Fox 45 News that was littered with misinformation about the kits and how they could function in the state under a new law taking effect. In it, a PR company for Leda Health indicated that survivors would be able to use their at-home kits as evidence in court, and that healthcare professionals could begin administering them in the state. Both were false claims.


Leda Health COO Dr. Sean Bogle later came to the station for an interview, and doubled down on some of those claims, while revealing what was inside the kits and how they work.

Bogle said Leda Health’s at-home rape kits empowered survivors to collect their own DNA evidence from home after the crime.


But many leaders, advocates, and experts in the state countered that the kits were virtually useless and, instead, misled survivors.


“Of course, my concern was always the admissibility in a criminal case,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger.


Shellenberger, who also served on the Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Committee said, unlike an exam conducted by a forensic nurse at a hospital, self-administered rape kits would likely never make it to court due to the lack of chain of custody.


The kits also don’t give those who use them the identity of their attacker either –- just whether foreign DNA was found.


“So, in a sense, what the kit does is it gives a woman who is in a very vulnerable state a false sense of security that she is doing something good for her potential case when in fact, seven months later, one of my prosecutors might have to say sorry we can’t use it,” said Shellenberger.


In a Judiciary Committee Hearing, there was more suspicion over both the kits and the company.

“There is a significant gap in our response to survivors, but commercial do-it-yourself rape kits are not the solution to this problem,” said Lisae Jordan with the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “They are an attempt to generate financial profit by misleading survivors, and they take advantage of a malfunctioning system and use it for purposes of financial exploitation and gain.”


In reference to the state’s gap in care for survivors, Leda Health’s Chief of Staff, Jacob Madden, told lawmakers he understood first-hand, the damage a lack of options could cause, and pointed out that not everyone feels comfortable reporting or seeking hospital care.


“I'm here both as Leda's Chief of Staff and also as a survivor of rape myself,” said Madden. “I was raped when I was 18, and I was a victim of the fact that there was no other option. I was not out publicly, and I felt completely unable to report what had happened to me.”


Still, lawmakers ultimately determined the harm outweighed any benefits of the kits, and overwhelmingly passed the bill to ban their commercial sell and distribution.


Another piece of legislation passed by lawmakers, however, aimed at addressing the state’s shortfalls in care.


“We don’t have enough forensic nurses and sometimes you go to the ‘wrong’ hospital and get sent somewhere else,” said Jordan.


To mitigate that, once signed and in effect, the plan will allow hospitals that don’t have the resources on the ground -- to instead use telehealth to contact hospitals with qualified forensic nurse examiners who will then walk them through the examination process virtually.


“To basically have the door shut in your face is the most awful thing, and basically what we are hoping to do is making sure that door stays open,” said Senator Hettleman.


As for the next state that Leda Health, or other companies marketing at-home rape kits, may try to sell their product to, Hettleman had the following advice.


“Learn about the issue. Learn about the promises and how accurate they are,” Hettleman said.


In response to the ban, a spokesperson for Leda Health said the company was exploring legal options “to combat this grave injustice,” that they claim takes critical tools away from survivors.

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