New app takes aim at backlog of untested rape kits

By Catherine McGloin, Globe Correspondent | March 27, 2020

Behind mirrored windows, inside the squat, gray building on Washington Street is a chilled storage room where paper bags, envelopes, and boxes, stuffed with evidence of sexual assault, await testing by the Boston Police Department’s forensic team.

It’s a chronic, systemic problem. There are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits backlogged in crime labs across the country, the federal government estimates. In Massachusetts, the backlog is around 400 and there are currently 42 rape kits at the police department’s Roxbury lab that have gone untested for more than 30 days, according to spokesman Sergeant Detective John Boyle.

Now a new Web-based app, authorized by the state’s criminal justice reform bill in 2018, is seeking to reduce the bottleneck by showing where rape kits are stored and how long they have gone untested. It lets survivors know the status of their case and provides this information to law enforcement, medical staff, and prosecutors, with an eye on moving cases forward at a faster pace.

The confidential Track-Kit system was rolled-out in January in several counties, including Barnstable, Bristol, Nantucket, Norfolk, and Plymouth. It arrived in Boston late last month.

Before Track-Kit was put in place there was no opportunity for individuals and survivors to get up-to-date accurate information about the status of their forensic exam,” said Toni Troop, director of communications for Jane Doe Inc., a sexual assault and domestic violence prevention group. “It offers a transparency around the system and can both give comfort to survivors and allow the system to keep track and make sure it is working.”

The state’s sweeping criminal justice reform bill, enacted two years ago, mandated a statewide inventory of untested evidence, which uncovered 418 rape kits that had never been tested. It also laid out clear timelines for the testing of all DNA evidence kits.

Hospitals must notify law enforcement within 24 hours after a kit is collected. Officers then have three business days to pick it up and seven to submit it to a crime lab. The crime lab must then analyze it within 30 days, otherwise it is considered part of a backlog.

Track-Kit will notify agencies of testing deadlines. It will also provide resources to victims of sexual assault, including contact information for area rape crisis center resources, hospitals, police departments, and the district attorney’s office.

“The process of collecting evidence of a sexual assault is intrusive in its nature, and we have a responsibility to handle the individual, and any evidence, with the urgency, delicate care, and attention they deserve,” Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said by e-mail.

There is no federal mandate that rape kits be counted or tracked and few jurisdictions have a system to effectively do so. Track-Kit is developed by STACS DNA, a private company that has designed similar systems in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, and Washington.

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