Across Kansas, more than 2,000 sexual assault kits — the forensic evidence investigators need to link offenders to rape cases — have sat on shelves untested, many of them nearly a decade old.
The bulk of those kits will soon be tested thanks to a recently completed initiative of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation that hopefully will result in the conclusion of open cases and identification of possible serial offenders.
Kansas became the first state to voluntarily count untested rape kits, the bureau announced this past week. About 13 states have conducted similar assessments after legislation demanded inventories, according to the KBI. The statewide count found that 86 of the more than 300 law enforcement agencies in the state possess a total of 2,200 untested sexual assault kits.
In Shawnee County, five kits hadn’t been tested, compared to more than 70 in neighboring Douglas County and zero in both Wabaunsee and Jackson counties. More than half — 1,188 — came from agencies in Sedgwick County.
The state’s efforts to inventory kits began in 2014, when the KBI first surveyed law enforcement agencies for information about unsubmitted rape kits. The process was bolstered in 2015, when the U.S. Department of Justice awarded a $2 million grant as part of a nationwide effort to address untested kits, said Melissa Underwod, communications director for the KBI.
The kits contain a variety of evidence, from swabs and hair samples to clothing. All of the kits will first be submitted to the KBI’s forensic lab at Washburn University, which opened in 2015, then distributed to regional labs for testing to spread out the workload. Technicians will collect DNA, which could still be usable even in the oldest kit, and submit DNA profiles to a database used to link offenders.
Lab technicians will test the kits almost entirely during overtime hours, which will be funded through the grant, Underwood said.
“We understand there are current investigations pending,” she said. “We don’t want to slow down those investigations.”
Tough for victims
At least one kit recently submitted for testing is from 1989, and the average age of untested kits is between eight and nine years, according to the KBI.
Having a sexual assault kit tested years after the incident may be difficult for some victims, said Michelle McCormick, program director for the YWCA of Northeast Kansas’ Center for Safety and Empowerment.
“They may have moved on in life, and in many ways, to have this crop up suddenly may be disruptive,” she said. “Reactions could run the gamut from feeling scared, angry. Others might feel vindicated.”
Trauma affects the brain and body differently, but YWCA case workers have been trained to help people work through that.
“I think one of the best things our advocates can do is help someone identify what they’re feeling and then help them understand,” McCormick said.
YWCA case workers are prepared to help guide victims through the wide range of possibilities that may follow having an old kit tested. That could include in-depth trauma counseling or simply walking someone through the legal process.
That is how the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence will provide the bulk of its assistance, said Kathy Ray, the organization’s director for advocacy and education. Ray is also a member of the multidisciplinary committee behind the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, or SAKI, which leads efforts to inventory old rape kits.
The coalition has 27 agencies, including the YWCA, for which it will provide training and support. Though the inventory is complete and testing of kits has begun, the backlog will have a long-term effect.
“Even if a DNA profile is uploaded to the database today, there may not be a hit now, but five years down the road that offender might get a hit for a different crime,” she said.
Assessing what led to the large backlog and preventing it from happening again will be a priority of the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, Ray said.
There are a wide variety of reasons kits may not have been submitted for testing. The largest is that lab resources are often insufficient to test all kits, so a backlog can quickly grow. Each law enforcement agency has a different policy for how and when to submit kits, and jurisdiction boundaries can complicate investigations, Underwood said.
Recent advances in lab technology, information sharing and standards also have changed the way agencies think about unsolved cases.
“It’s a national problem, not something that’s only occurring in Kansas,” Underwood said.
Moving forward, the SAKI committee will analyze how the backlog began, looking at changes in policy, reporting standards and possible barriers, such as financial and technological constraints, Ray said.
“To prevent the backlog, but also to make sure we’re improving response to these cases and to the victim at the forefront,” she said. “As soon as the victim goes to the hospital, how are we improving?”