If you missed Part 1 of this story, you can access it here.
In the last post, we covered what a rape kit is, and the scope of the rape kit backlog. In this post we will pick up with the progress and challenges of getting to the bottom of the backlog.
Successes so Far
Fifteen states and dozens of municipalities have made the pledge to get to the bottom of the backlog, with huge success: thousands of kits have been processed, identifying hundreds of serial rapists. After a 2011 call by the Ohio Attorney General to process old rape kits, over 8,000 kits were sent to Ohio’s state crime lab, and over 4,000 have been tested so far. These tests have resulted in 1,474 matches with the national DNA database—over 35% of kits that had been sitting in storage had a match. What is even more staggering is that at least 200 suspected serial rapists have been identified. Houston mayor, Annise Parker, prioritized the processing of rape kits, even though it cost $5.9 million. They turned up 894 DNA hits on the national database.
The State Crime Lab of North Carolina prides itself on processing rape kits sent to their lab immediately. However, even “immediately” still means survivors are waiting 18 months to 2 years for results. According to a recent report, the state crime labs are struggling with recruitment and retention of scientists, many of whom leave after only a short time for better paying jobs in the private sector. The state is taking steps to decrease turnaround time for DNA evidence by opening a new lab and hiring additional scientists, and the General Assembly is considering salary increases to improve retention. An unfortunate consequence of the delay is that after two years of waiting, it is harder to secure a conviction, and sometimes survivors just want to move on.
In Charlotte, where they have their own crime lab, a spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department stated that even though there is a backlog of 1,019 kits, this number should not be taken seriously, because over 600 of those were from cases that had been closed. But a major argument for the processing of kits in the backlog is to find hits even in closed cases. For example, a kit that was not processed due to lack of evidence could produce a match with DNA previously entered for a no-suspect rape case, or another rape case closed for lack of evidence—putting the pieces together can strengthen both cases and help get serial rapists off the streets.
Bringing perpetrators to justice seems like a win-win for survivors and society. For many survivors, having their rape kits tested finally brings credibility to their stories that may have been dismissed by law enforcement or even family and friends. It may bring a sense of closure and vindication. Debbie Smith, after whom the 2004 Debbie Smith Act is named, described feeling the end of six years of fear and torment when her rape kit turned up a match for someone who was in prison for another crime.
Another facet of processing old rape kits, however, is that some of the kits are years, even decades, old. Some jurisdictions notify survivors when a kit is finally processed or only when a match is found. This notification process can be deeply painful for many survivors. Being contacted out of the blue by law enforcement about a rape that happened years ago can be very traumatic. Wherever the survivor is in their healing process, they may be plunged back into memories of the assault and possibly even called to appear in court. Even for survivors who had been longing to get the chance to put their perpetrator behind bars, this can be a highly stressful and tumultuous process.
A key component of the Center’s services is offering information and support before, during, and after a rape kit is collected. Our companions are trained to help prepare survivors for the physical and emotional realities of a rape kit, and they can accompany survivors to the emergency room to support them through the process if they choose to go ahead with the collection. The Center also offers free and confidential support to anyone at any point in their healing journey, be it days or decades after an assault.
- Senate hearings on backlog of rape kits, 5/20/15
- NPR’s Fresh Air interviews Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer investigative reporter Rachel Dissell
Rosemary Byrnes is a summer intern at the Center while she works toward her Master in Social Work degree at UNC-Chapel Hill. She works with the client services team to support survivors in our community.