“These kits are representing each survivor.”
Those words from Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, explain the push to test long-stored and long-ignored sexual assault kits across the nation.
More than 50 percent of the 6,424 previously untested sexual assault kits collecting dust across the state of Arizona have been tested, resulting in eight indictments.
A sexual assault kit, SAK, is the contents of a medical examination conducted by a sexual assault forensic nurse. It yields physical evidence that can be used in a criminal investigation including blood, semen, saliva, fingernail scraping, urine and clothing.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed 400,000 untested rape kits abandoned in evidence rooms countrywide. The Accountability Project, an initiative by the Joyful Heart Foundation, audited each state. The goal: test the untested to identify sexual predators.
And the work is not complete.
Explanations vary as to why the kits went untested, from lack of funding and training in law enforcement. But a darker view is that the stigma of sexual assault contributed to law enforcement’s unwillingness to test them.
“We know that victims of sexual assault are blamed more than any other crime by law enforcement because they have a perception that the victim was doing something wrong or they don’t believe them,” Knecht said.
The cost of testing ranges from $400 to $1,500, depending on the amount of evidence being tested.
The DOJ provides funds for jurisdictions to test old kits and pursue new arrests.
Since 2015, “More than 48,000 sexual assault kits have been inventoried by 42 SAKI (Sexual Assault Kit Initiative) jurisdictions across the country. Over 18,000 kits have been sent for testing and over 2,000 DNA hits to the national CODIS database have already been made.”
Tucson Medical Center and the Southern Arizona Coalition Against Sexual Assault, SACASA, has tried to put funding and bureaucracy aside, so that they can focus on victims.
Through their partnership with Tucson Medical Center, SACASA prioritizes victims’ mental and physical care after they’ve been assaulted, said Stephanie Green, vice president of nursing at CODAC. The police department in contact with victims will send them to TMC’s Emergency Department. That’s where SACASA comes in. They dispatch an advocate to the hospital to work with victims.
Green said everyone involved tries to minimize the victim’s time in the examination room.
A sexual assault forensic nurse is contracted through the Tucson Medical Center to do the examination that begins with a verbal history before any physical examination. Examinations can take between one to six hours, depending on the extent of the contact and injuries.
“Survivors go through this invasive and uncomfortable procedure with the expectation that the evidence will be tested and used to identify and potentially prosecute the offender,” Knecht said.
The growing national conversation and mounting pressure from media, victim right’s activists and initiatives, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey took action.
In January 2016, Gov. Ducey established the Arizona Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit Task Force.
According to a report by the task force, it is responsible for, “documenting the location of all untested sexual assault kits in Arizona, providing legislative recommendations to ensure every kit is tested in a timely manner, developing statewide protocols, and recommending a statewide tracking system for sexual assault kits.”
The task force determined 4,367 of the untested kits in Arizona were in Maricopa County, resulting in the county being a grant recipient of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, DANY Grant, for $1.9 million to test an estimated 2,300 sexual assault kits.
DANY Grants, were announced under the Obama Administration to fund the elimination of the massive backlog of untested SAKs across the country.
The Tucson Police Department was also awarded a DANY Grant of more than a million dollars for TPD’s Crime Lab to test 1,200 of 1,849 untested kits in Tucson, according to The Accountability Project. With more than 600 kits left to test, Pima County Attorney’s Office has indicted one person as a result.
The Maricopa County Attorney Office’s has since been awarded $3.3 million of federal funding over two years to continue their work to analyze kits, re-engage survivors and investigate and prosecute cases.
The funding has allowed for nearly 2,700 sexual assault kits to be tested in Maricopa County, 250 DNA profile matches, and seven new indictments, with three cases that have led to convictions and four other cases that are awaiting trial.
Research has proven that testing unsubmitted SAKs is critical for law enforcement to identify and convict sexual predators with a history of serious violent offenses.
According to a report by SAKI, “Testing of SAKs not only provides answers and justice for victims, but also helps increase overall public safety.”
The DOJ approved funding for case studies in Michigan to examine the cause of backlogs and eliminate their build up.
Through analyzing 11,000 previously untested SAKs in Detroit, Michigan, the backlog revealed more than 2,600 suspects and 818 identified serial rapists, resulting 273 cases being investigated and 130 convictions.
It is important to test backlogged SAKs and reopen cases because of sex offender’s high recidivism rate. According to the DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, “Sex offenders are about four times more likely than non-sex offenders to be arrested for another sex crime after their discharge from prison.”
Knecht applauded the initiatives working to eliminate statewide backlogs, but said that Arizona needs to focus on stopping a future buildup from continuing and reoccurring.
“It’s really important that (Arizona) pass legislation that requires the testing of every newly collected kit that comes in now,” Knecht said. “The only way that this doesn’t happen again, is that every kit goes forward to a lab and tested within a certain amount of time.”
With state and federal funding, nearly 3,000 untested kits still remain in the state of Arizona.
Last year, Gov. Ducey signed HB 2268 into law, which asserts that all rape kits must be tested in a timely manner and provides government agencies the funds to do so.
According to the bill summary, “HB 2268 requires health care facilities to notify law enforcement within 24 hours when a sexual assault kit is collected. It then mandates that law enforcement submit the kit to a crime lab to be tested within 15 days. The bill also requires annual reporting detailing the number of kits processed and explanations for any untested kits.”
In addition, Arizona has recently changed its law so that there is no statute of limitation for felony sexual offenses.
Anna Frazier is a reporter for Arizona Sonoran News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org