New job, system approved to track New Hampshire rape kits

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire will implement a new system to keep track of evidence in sexual assault cases after finding that nearly 600 rape kits had not been submitted to the state crime lab.

The Executive Council on Wednesday approved $104,000 in federal funding to establish a new Justice Department position and an automated system to track the handling and testing of sexual assault kits. When the state applied for the grant in May, there were 582 kits in more than 90 police departments that had not been sent in for testing, as well as 70 kits waiting to be processed at the state lab.

The New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, which trains nurses to examine victims, estimates that 250-300 kits are collected statewide each year. Amanda Grady Sexton, the coalition’s public affairs director, called the backlog unacceptable and said the state must provide law enforcement and the crime lab with additional resources to modernize its system.

“When a victim of sexual assault decides to undergo an exam for evidence collection, it’s critical that their rape kit is processed quickly and that the evidence is properly tracked and stored. No victim of sexual assault should ever be left wondering when or if their rape kit will be analyzed,” she said.

The state currently has no tracking system for the kits, which are distributed by the department of justice to hospitals. The grant money would be used to hire someone to do a more detailed inventory, visit police departments and ensure that any kit that falls within the statute of limitations is forwarded to the lab. The new hire also would oversee the implementation of a tracking system developed by police in Portland, Oregon, that includes a website for victims to follow a kit’s progress.

North Carolina recently implemented a new tracking system and is using a federal grant to process some of its 15,000 untested kits. In Alaska, where there were 3,000 untested kits in 2017, the state crime lab has proposed the creation of a dedicated team to process new kits in a timely manner. Following a state law aimed at eliminating a backlog, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation announced in November that it had processed more than 3,000 kits found untested in police evidence lockers.

While other states have struggled with enormous backlogs, Attorney General Gordon MacDonald said he doesn’t view New Hampshire in that category.

“I regard this as a more proactive attempt to enable us to use the technology and software and get the personnel we need to make sure that these sexual assault kits go through the system as they’re intended and to give transparency to victims of sexual assault,” he told the council.

The state outlined several reasons for the unsubmitted kits in its grant application. Many police departments are in rural areas that don’t see many sexual assault cases and often are staffed with only one officer at a time. In larger departments, officers who spend most of their careers in patrol jobs sometimes move into supervisory roles and are unfamiliar with investigation protocol. And in some cases, officers who hold “certain societal myths and misperceptions about adult sexual assault” make decisions about a kit’s value without a full investigation, the application states.

Center Harbor Police Chief Mark Chase, president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, said in an interview Wednesday that he supports the new system. His department has three full-time officers and five part-time officers, and can go several years without handling a rape kit.

“Obviously if we get one, it’s a priority and we get it right down to the lab,” said Chase, though he noted there may be valid reasons to delay.

“There may not be a rush to get it down there because you may be doing other investigations, including search warrants for DNA swabs on the suspects,” he said. “But I can’t imagine any department doesn’t make it a priority.”

Also Wednesday, the House Criminal Justice Committee held a public hearing on a bill that would require police departments to retain kits in perpetuity once they are returned from the state lab. Current protocol recommends that kits be held until the statute of limitations runs out — six years for cases with adult victims and until a child victim turns 40 — but there is no enforcement, said Janet Carroll, who coordinates the nurse examiner training program. She and several police chiefs said they supported the intent of the legislation but raised concerns that police departments lack storage capacity to comply given that some evidence must be refrigerated or frozen.

The sponsor, Rep. Sherry Frost, D-Dover, said after speaking to prosecutors, that there does not seem to be a problem with kits being prematurely destroyed and that she would be open to amending the bill.