OLYMPIA — In Washington, there are thousands of rape kits that have never been processed. A new $3 million federal grant for the state Attorney General’s Office could help fix that.
The U.S. Department of Justice grant will help the state test the backlog of kits, which provide DNA evidence in cases of sexual assault, according to a press release. It will also pay for a new team in the Attorney General’s Office that will oversee the effort to reduce the backlog and provide training for law enforcement.
Advocacy groups say the grant brings new hope of justice for assault survivors.
“I was really, really delighted to hear that there was funding for the backlog, and that it would lighten the load,” said Kathryn Burr, director at Crisis Support Network. The local nonprofit serves victims of crime, sexual assault and domestic violence.
Evidence in exile
Rape kits are collections of clothing, body fluids, and other evidence gathered from a victim of a sexual assault. A specially trained medical professional typically does the exam.
Handled properly, the kits can and do lead to convictions. They can also help investigators spot connections between cases and regions. When authorities in Detroit processed thousands of untested kits, they identified “770 potential serial rapists who have committed crimes in 40 states and Washington, D.C.,” according to the nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation. However, budget issues, policies, lack of interest in prosecuting sexual-assault cases and other problems can prevent the kits from getting tested.
If a victim agrees to work with police, their kit is supposed to be sent to a crime lab, where experts test the materials for DNA. However, some languish in storage when detectives or prosecutors choose not to send the kits in for testing. Others are sent to the crime lab, but don’t get tested within the recommended 30-day window. The backlogged cases can pile up when crime labs lack staff, money or equipment to meet the demand.
According to Joyful Heart, it’s difficult to say exactly how many untested kits there are nationwide because most jurisdictions have no system for counting or tracking them. The foundation estimates there are hundreds of thousands of untested kits in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the country.
In 2015, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs asked law enforcement agencies throughout Washington to estimate the number of backlogged sexual assault kits in their custody. The survey identified around 6,000 untested kits statewide.
Officials cited a variety of reasons why some kits weren’t sent to the lab in the past. Sometimes, investigators believe they have a strong enough case to convict without paying to have a kit tested. And according to the Attorney General, many agencies lack the resources needed to investigate these cases.
Signs of improvement
“Pacific County is working in a more cohesive system,” said Burr, who has been at CSN for almost four years. She’s seen increased collaboration between social service providers, medical providers and first responders; better hospital policies; a growing number of local sexual assault experts; and more aggressive prosecution of sex crimes. When she started, Willapa Harbor Hospital had one nurse who was trained to work with patients who have been assaulted. Now, it has three.
Ocean Beach Hospital doesn’t have any nurses who have been trained to work with victims, but administrators are making other changes, Burr said. At one time, only law enforcement officers carried the kits. That meant victims could only get a kit done if they were prepared to involve police right away. Now, the hospital keeps the kits in-house, so victims can get tested, and decide whether to turn the kit over to police later.
Hospital staff and cops are increasingly bringing in advocates as soon as they suspect sexual assault, Burr said. If Ocean Beach patients wish to be examined by a trained nurse, CSN advocates can drive them to Willapa Harbor.
“That is a huge change. That’s a real feather in the cap,” Burr said. “We’ve still got more work to do. There is no question. Any rape victim should be able to go into any hospital and get a kit.”
The push from advocacy groups has led to similar changes across the country during the last few years. Washington lawmakers passed laws in 2015 and 2016 designed to bring justice for victims and improve the way the state handles rape kits. One of the bills passed in 2015, requires the testing of all kits submitted after July 2015.
Hope for cold cases
The Attorney General will use about half of the grant money to form a team that will include two new investigators. During the first six months, the investigators will travel across the state to collect a detailed inventory of backlogged kits, according to a press release. Then they’ll help local agencies prioritize and submit the kits.
The remaining $1.5 million in grant money will cover the cost of testing up to 2,100 kits at Washington State Patrol labs. It costs about $680 to test each kit, though some kits cost more.
The state will also provide support to agencies who use test results to reopen cold cases, and to provide trauma training to law enforcement officers, prosecutors and victim advocates.
“The idea of backlogged rape kits has driven me nuts for my whole career,” Burr said. “Collecting them is one of the most difficult things a human can go through. … And then for it to go nowhere?”
She thinks victims will be more willing to get tested if they see evidence that the kit will help them get some justice.
She cited a recent local case, in which a woman wanted to get a kit done, but no one was available to do the examination. Hospital staff contacted advocates, who drove her to Olympia, where a specially-trained nurse examined her.
“In my opinion, the kit really made the case,” Burr said. “Her perpetrator was held accountable.
Without that kit, the perpetrator wouldn’t have been held accountable.”