A New System to Ensure Sexual-Assault Cases Aren’t Forgotten
By Madeleine Carlisle | April 7, 2019
Susan Baisch has been conducting sexual-assault forensic exams for more than 27 years. Working as an emergency-room nurse for St. Luke’s hospital in Twin Falls, Idaho, Baisch has been specially trained to collect sexual-assault evidence in what are known as “rape kits.” The exam can be long and invasive, lasting four to six hours.
After assaults are reported, survivors’ bodies are treated like crime scenes and, if they so choose, searched, swabbed, and photographed, along with their clothes and other personal belongings, to find possible DNA evidence left by an attacker. Whatever evidence is found is then sealed in a sexual-assault evidence kit. The DNA can often be a crucial tool in prosecuting sexual assault. But that requires the kits to be tested by a police crime lab. Before 2016, forensic nurses didn’t always know what happened to the kits after they left their custody.
“We never really knew how many kits we had,” Baisch told me. She recalled that she would say to the police or the crime lab,“‘We sent you 10 last week—what happened to them?’” They didn’t always have an answer. And if the lab didn’t know, and the police didn’t know, and Baisch didn’t know, then the survivors themselves didn’t know.
Where did the kits go? Sometimes they were sitting in crime labs. Other times, they never even made it there. Investigative reporting by the Idaho Press-Tribune found that from 2010 to 2015, Twin Falls Police submitted only 23 percent of kits for testing. About 140 miles or so northwest of Twin Falls, in Nampa, only 10 percent of kits were submitted. This practice was not specific to Idaho. The Joyful Heart Foundation, an anti-sexual-violence nonprofit founded by the Law and Order: Special Victims Unit actress Mariska Hargitay, estimates that hundreds of thousands of sexual-assault kits are currently sitting untested in crime labs or police evidence rooms across the United States.
But the cycle was broken three years ago in Idaho. The state launched the first statewide sexual-assault-kit tracking system in the country. After their examination, survivors are now given their kit’s tracking number, like one they might get with a FedEx or UPS package. They can log in to a portal that tracks their kit’s progress through the criminal-justice system. Survivors can see when the kit enters the custody of law enforcement. They can see when it’s sent to the lab for testing. They can see when DNA evidence is entered into the Combined DNA Index System, and when it comes back with a match. And if the kit stalls, they can advocate and push to have the test completed. The portal includes no names, to prioritize confidentiality, but using the tracking number, survivors, medical professionals, and law enforcement can all know the status of the kit. The law mandates that most kits must be preserved for 55 years. The kits will be tracked the whole time. Now law enforcement can prioritize kits whose cases are nearing the end of their statute of limitations. If a kit is taken from a survivor who doesn’t want to give her name, she is still given that kit’s tracking number. If she decides later that she wants to report the assault, she’ll be able to know where the evidence is.
Across the country, lawmakers started to consider ways to address the problem. In 2015, Wayne County, Michigan, formed a coalition to brainstorm how to best address 11,000 untested sexual-assault kits discovered in a Detroit storage locker six years earlier. This coalition, led by the prosecutor Kym Worthy, eventually led Wayne County to pilot one of the first tracking systems. STACS DNA, a software company Michigan already employed to track DNA evidence in its crime labs, partnered with the state to develop the software Track-Kit, which is now used in at least nine Michigan counties (and in the summer will go live in the entire state), as well as in Texas, Arizona, Nevada, and Washington.
Captain Monica Alexander of the Washington State Patrol told me that every jurisdiction in Washington now uses Track-Kit, and said it’s going “really well.” She pointed out the importance of the system’s simple design. “You have very young rape victims, you have very old rape victims,” she said. “They wanted to make sure that anyone from any age group could use this.” She explained that if she called her IT department “right now,” someone could tell her the exact number of kits uploaded on any given day. Washington’s goal is to also upload all backlogged kits into the system—which right now number more than 4,000.