Thousands of rape kits found untested after evidence was collected spark calls for introduction of tracking system
The psychological toll rape takes on survivors is undeniable. However, the victims that hope that law enforcement will bring the perpetrator to justice are often left feeling more like the accused than the victim. Here's why.
The process of collecting evidence of sexual assault using "rape kits" is often a long and invasive procedure that lasts four to six hours and sees the victim's body treated like a crime scene, The Atlantic reported.
The women are subjected to searches and swabs of their clothes and other personal belongings in a bid to find DNA evidence that has been left behind by their attacker.
Whatever evidence is found is then sealed in the rape kit which has to be then be tested by a police crime lab.
However, investigations conducted across the country found that these rape kits are often abandoned after the evidence is collected.
In 2000, it was found that New York City had 17,000 untested sexual-assault kits sitting pretty in a warehouse, untouched.
The Humans Right Watch similarly uncovered in 2009 that Los Angeles had close to 13,000 untested kits, and the same year, 11,000 untested kits were discovered by officials in a Detroit storage locker.
Over the past 15 years in Illinois, just 19.7% of kits had been confirmed tested.
In Idaho, it emerged that, between 2010 to 2015, Twin Falls Police submitted only 23 percent of kits for testing.
In Nampa, 140 miles northwest of Twin Falls, that number fell to an even more discouraging 10 percent.
Three years ago, Idaho decided it had had enough. The state launched what was the country's first-ever statewide sexual assault kit-tracking system in a bid to add transparency and accountability to the entire process.
Matthew Gamette, the Laboratory System Director at the Idaho State Police Forensic Services, who spearheaded the implementation of the system, told MEA WorldWide (MEAWW) that he saw a great need for the system and wanted to "get ahead of the curve" on the issue.
Boasting the infrastructure with the Idaho Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Group (ISAKI) to collaborate with all of the stakeholders — the prosecutors, law enforcement, hospitals, survivors etc. — to get the right product developed, as well as the resources to get it done in-house with their own web programmers, the tracking system was rolled out in 2016.
Now, after their examination, survivors are given their kit's tracking number which they can use to log in to a portal that tracks its progress as it makes its way through the bureaucracies of the criminal justice system.
They can see when the kit enters the custody of law enforcement, when it's sent to a lab for testing, when it comes back with a match, and can even push for tests to be completed if they feel like the process has stalled.
Gamette revealed that setting up the system was not without its obstacles. "The biggest obstacle was getting all the stakeholders together to agree on the right approach," he explained to MEAWW.
"Many initially wanted more information in the system such as having the victims login. I was concerned all along about any victim information being in the system. I did not want a hacking incident to release a ton of data about victims. Therefore we worked it through with the group and helped them understand that there would be nothing that sensitive to require a login."
Indeed, the portal includes no names to ensure confidentiality and functions purely on the tracking number assigned to the kit. That one number collectively allows for all the stakeholders to know its progress at any given time.
Gamett said the average monthly number of visitors to the public site in 2018 was 34, and that between 20 and 25 medical, law enforcement, laboratory, and prosecutor users log in each day to document and update kit events in the system.
He also said other challenges involved in implementing the tracking system included getting a good initial audit of the kits in the state, getting laws changed to allow for them to be the ones with the statutory authority to run the system, and putting together the requisite IT resources.
Its success can hardly be questioned.
The Atlantic reported that from 2016 to 2018, the number of DNA samples eligible for analysis in Idaho crime labs increased by 161.5% and that the state has now submitted all of its previously unsubmitted kits that were eligible for testing.
And encouragingly enough, there is progress being made elsewhere as well.
Debbie Smith was sexually assaulted in 1989 and had to wait for six years after the attack for a crime lab to test her rape kit.
Her advocacy for the cause saw the passage of the Debbie Smith Act in 2004, which granted federal funding to support the processing of DNA evidence.
2012's Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry Act expanded on the Debbie Smith Act and granted funding to end backlogs in both crime labs and police custody. 2015's SAKI, a Department of Justice program set up with the help of Research Triangle International (RTI), provided funding to cover unsubmitted kits.
In 2015, just one state had a law for a rape kit-tracking system. Today, there are 17 states with tracking laws, with Illinois announcing plans to have a tracking system by the end of the year.
Gamette told MEAWW that he has been personally contacted by at least 26 different states who have inquired about Idaho's tracking system and that he is currently working with Puerto Rico on an implementation.
The software, he said, is being offered free of charge to all government entities, who could no doubt use it considering that it's estimated that across the United States today, close to a quarter of a million rape kits remain untested — kits that have DNA evidence, which if entered into the national database, could help solve more than two million crimes that have unidentified DNA.