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Keeping track of kits a tool against rape

October 7, 2018

A new system run by the United States Postal Service is tracking a different kind of package in Connecticut: sexual assault evidence collection kits.

These kits, also known as rape kits, contain evidence, like DNA, that is used in police investigations and for identifying repeat sex offenders.

But a 2015 survey found that almost 1,188 sexual assault kits in Connecticut never made it to their final destination: the State Crime Lab, where scientists evaluate their contents.

Instead, they sat on shelves in refrigerated evidence rooms in police stations around the state, untouched and untested, sometimes for years.

“There’s a number of reasons that kits weren’t sent to the lab. Number one would be the victim no longer wanted to participate with an investigation,” said Kerry Dalling, a Fairfield Police detective who sits on the Governor’s Sexual Assault Kit Working Group. “The lab already had a huge backlog of these kits, so we weren’t going to further burden it with cases that were not likely to be prosecuted.”

Connecticut is not the only state where a backlog of languishing kits exists. There is no national database that tracks sexual assault kit testing, but state data obtained by the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national nonprofit that does advocacy about the backlog, shows there are at least 225,000 untested kits around the country.

In many states, the number of untested kits is still unknown. But some states, including Connecticut, have taken steps to analyze their backlog and prevent it from developing again.

These steps can mean solving more crimes and preventing some others.

“There are a lot of communities that are doing what Connecticut is doing — taking these old kits off the shelf, sending them for testing — and they are finding, locating, identifying dangerous offenders that have been on the streets, honestly because the rape kit sat on the shelf,” said Ilse Knecht, director of Policy and Advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation.

“They are able to look at the history, the crimes that these people have committed, and can identify in many places preventable crimes while the kits sat on the shelf,” Knecht said. “If they had been tested earlier, somebody else would not have been effected by the same person’s criminal actions.”

The tracking system

The 2015 survey showed Connecticut the backlog it didn’t know existed.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy established a working group that year to coordinate tracking and testing of the kits. The state also passed a law in 2015 requiring law enforcement to deliver all sexual assault kits to the state Crime Lab within 10 days. The lab must analyze the kits within 60 days.

In 2018, the legislature passed more reforms ordering the state to implement an electronic tracking system for the kits and develop guidelines around how health care facilities use the system and how victims can access it.

Laura Cordes, executive director of the Connecticut Alliance to End Sexual Violence and who chairs the sexual assault kit working group, said the 2018 law codified efforts already under way.

The state purchased the UPS tracking system for $6,700 in 2017 and had it online by May of that year, said Kristin Sasinouski, deputy director of Forensic Biology and DNA for the state Crime Lab.

The system — which costs $600 a month annually — works like a tracking number for a package. Kits are sent to hospitals and emergency departments with a serial number. A sexual assault victim who voluntarily appears at a hospital for evidence collection will undergo a three- to six-hour invasive examination and questioning; all that evidence will be systemically stored in the kit.

The nurse, physician or sexual assault forensic examiner will then enter the completed kit’s number into the online system. The tracking has now begun.

The system will show where the kit is after it is picked up by law enforcement and then transported to the state Crime Lab.

The system is now in use at the state’s 28 hospitals as well as free-standing emergency departments. Marielle Daniels, director of regulatory advocacy for the Connecticut Hospital Association, called the tracking system “very straightforward.”

“We don’t anticipate any trouble,” she said.

Victims are given their kit’s number when they leave the hospital so they can see where their evidence is at any time.

The state reported 831 rape offenses in 2017, and between 625 and 925 rape offenses each year for the past decade, according to the Connecticut 2017 Uniform Crime Report. But research shows only a fraction of victims who experience sexual assault or rape seek evidence collection.

“Sexual assault victims who bravely step forward and undergo an invasive exam, we believe deserve to know what happened to the evidence that was so painstakingly collected from their bodies,” said Cordes.

The system is also an enforcement tool so state officials can ensure police departments and the crime lab are complying with the time frames for kit delivery and testing, said Knecht.

Testing old kits

The U.S. Department of Justice awarded Connecticut two grants totaling $3.25 million in 2015 and 2017 to pay for analysis of its 1,188 untested kits and about 1,000 more partially-tested old kits.

The state has now completed testing of all the old, untouched kits. As a result, a national DNA database for violent crime created 368 new profiles, according to data published Tuesday by the Governor’s Sexual Assault Kit Working Group. The kits produced more than 100 hits with individuals already in the database. Fourteen of the kits contained DNA that matched already convicted offenders.

“We know that a lot of offenders, especially rapists in general, are serial offenders. They commit rape over and over again, but they also commit all kinds of crime,” said Knecht. “When they do identify some of the offenders from the rape kits and they take them off the streets and they look at their rap sheet, it’s very telling of how we need to be approaching these cases from now on.”

The state is now working on analyzing the partially tested old kits, as well as about 600 new kits that are sent to the Crime Lab each year, said Sasinouski.

The state is also now contacting the victims to whom the old kits belong with the new results. The Working Group developed the contact guidelines and published them in February 2018.

In some parts of the country, states showing a commitment to reducing their sexual assault kit backlog and testing all new kits has prompted more victims to seek evidence collection, said Knecht. States’ efforts show victims they will be taken seriously.

“All of this work around sexual assault kits is sort of like a seed,” said Knecht. “It really does seed change in a way that starts to look at the whole system and the way that it reacts to sexual violence, and that actually has a ripple effect out into the community.”

emunson@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @emiliemunson

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