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New rape-kit rules intend to eliminate confusion, backlog for survivors

Kate Thornton | U.S. Air Force

A new Missouri law orders the state to create guidelines for testing, processing and storing rape kits, which collect DNA evidence from victims of sexual violence.

After a person is sexually assaulted, investigators can submit DNA evidence in the form of a sexual-assault kit, which police run through a database to help find the perpetrator.

The law requires health providers to give that evidence to police within 14 days. Law enforcement must submit evidence to crime labs 14 days after that.

Advocates for rape victims have long called for such measures.

Hospitals often don't know how long to retain a rape kit after testing, or where to send it, said Cindy Malott, a crisis intervention supervisor for the YWCA of Metropolitan St. Louis. That means police may not have the evidence when victims are ready to come forward

“Once they had emotionally processed what had happened, thought it through and felt they had enough emotional support and were ready to come forward, [they] went to make a report and then realized the kit was no longer in existence,” Malott said.

Standardizing procedure statewide

Former Gov. Eric Greitens signed the law earlier this month, after a report from Attorney General Josh Hawley’s office that indicated a backlog of at least 4,889 rape kitsin Missouri that had not been sent to crime labs. Additionally, approximately one-third of law-enforcement agencies destroyed kits before the Department of Justice-recommended period of 20 years, Hawley’s office found.

Hawley cited inconsistent rules and a lack of statewide guidance dealing with evidence as a major reason for the backlog of evidence. The new law, which also sets up a tracking system for each kit, would clarify the evidence-collecting process for hospitals, prosecutors and police departments, he said.

“The Legislature’s action will help standardize all of that, and the tracking system will help us track every kit from genesis to conclusion of a case,” Hawley said.

Respondents to theattorney general’s survey said they were confused about what to do with kits if, for example, the local prosecutor hadn’t requested the results.

It also requires law-enforcement agencies to keep kits for 30 years or until the case has been solved, bringing the state in line with the DOJ recommendations.

To not keep them for the statute of limitations is "horrifying," said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, an advocacy organization that lobbies for testing the forgotten evidence.

"What if a suspect walked in and said, 'I did this, I'm repentant; I'm confessing'? You'd probably want to test the DNA, and then you wouldn't have it," Knecht said.

Testing the kits can also help identify serial rapists that never come forward, potentially keeping sexual assault from happening again, Hawley said.

“Not only does it help identify potentially a perpetrator in one case, it can also reveal crimes committed in other cases,” he said.

Hawley said his office has applied for a $3-million federal grant to fund the tracking system, which allows police and survivors to follow the status of each kit.

Malott said too often, once a victim undergoes an evidence examination, the kit disappears.

Not enough funding to test all of rape kit backlog

As for the state’s backlog of untested kits, Missouri doesn’t have the funds to test them, according to Hawley's report.  The state’s publicly funded crime labs “currently lack the capacity to test both the current inflow of rape kits and the nearly 5,000 currently untested kits,” the report from his office said.

The same federal grant application that would fund the statewide tracking system also requests money to test these kits, Hawley said.

When a law-enforcement agency handles kits in a timely manner, it tells victims they’re being taken seriously, Malott said.

“We know starting out it's a horrific thing for someone to have to endure, but to feel that that wasn't taken seriously, or that was dismissed or was never addressed … that has a devastating impact,” Malott said. “That has, in many cases, a lifelong impact on how that person addresses and heals and moves forward after suffering.”

Follow Sarah on twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.