Tens of thousands of rape kits neglected nationwide, USA Today investigation reveals

The lack of clear federal regulations and responsibilities regarding rape kits have contributed to a massive backlog.

Pat Sullivan/AP
Forensic analyst India Henry examines cotton swabs from a sexual assault evidence kit in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015.

A USA Today Media Network investigation released Thursday found police neglected at least 70,000 sexual assault evidence kits nationwide.

The organization used an open-records campaign covering more than 1,000 police agencies to obtain data, which revealed some bureaus send as few as two in 10 kits to crime labs.

According to the report, the information collected is from just “a fraction of the nation’s 18,000 police departments, suggesting the number of untested rape kits reaches into the hundreds of thousands.”

"Every single one of those rape kits is a person, and [their] family and friends," said Joanie Scheske, a rape victim whose assailant was caught 18 years after the incident when evidence in a separate sexual assault case matched her attacker’s DNA, according to USA Today.

"[A rape kit] is like a baby's mobile: You touch one piece and it moves all the others. It's not just one person,” Scheske said. “Everyone that their sphere of influence touches is affected by what happens to a victim."

Forty-four states have no law stipulating when police should test rape kits and 34 states haven’t conducted a statewide inventory, the investigation noted.

Without written guidelines, decisions about rape kits are at the discretion of police.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation from June found the state’s largest hospital was complicit in the failure to analyze rape kits.

“Officials said a federal medical privacy law blocked them from alerting police or providing them with evidence,” the Journal-Constitution reported.

Timothy Jefferson, Grady Hospital attorney said, “Our interpretation of the law is we cannot – will not – give out medical information to law enforcement when a patient expressly asks us not to, absent a court order.”

But legal experts told the news organization, staff could notify police when they learned of the possible crimes. In fact, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, state law requires hospitals to alert police to signs of “nonaccidental” injuries and release information that could solve a case, which is why they routinely report stabbings and killings.

The USA Today investigation also looked into issues connected with a victim’s decision to press charges.

According to their report, Law enforcement officials said “the most common reason kits are not tested is there is not a prosecutable case, usually due to a lack of cooperation from victims.”

The investigation also included an opinion from Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Crime Victims Center, who said a “perceived lack of cooperation from a victim is not a valid reason to jettison forensic evidence.”

A landmark study, released earlier this year and funded by the Justice Department, focused on Detroit and found “budget and staffing cuts compromised investigation quality such that 'cutting corners' became normative.”

The USA Today report seemed to confirm this allegation, noting that “At about $1,000 per kit, officials said submitting a rape kit for testing unnecessarily could divert resources from other policing needs or delay testing of evidence in cases where the need for analysis is more urgent.”

However, Congress has channeled about $1.2 billion towards the backlog of DNA testing, USA Today reports.

The Detroit study also faulted police for “negative, victim-blaming beliefs” and stated “rape survivors were often assumed to be prostitutes.”

Karen Owen, executive director of Natasha’s Justice Group, told Al Jazeera America that frequent leadership turnovers at police departments increase chances policies to address backlogs aren’t implemented

An analysis by the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN) estimates that only three out of every 100 rapists will ever spend a single day in prison.

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