Untested Rape Kits Sit in Cold Storage
Three new rape victims arrive each day at the Rape Crisis Treatment Center in Santa Monica, Calif., where, besides being given comfort and medical care, victims are offered a forensic examination that could help identify and prosecute their attackers. Seeing the pain of the victims is hard enough, but for the center's director, Gail Abarbanel, one of the worst parts of her job is wondering whether rapes could have been prevented had the evidence so painstakingly collected ever been tested.
All over the country, rape kits are sitting untested in refrigerated storage facilities. A report currently being compiled by Human Rights Watch (HRW) puts the number at over 400,000, and the backlog is particularly pressing in large urban centers like Los Angeles. For Abarbanel, it represents a profound betrayal. "When such an incredible tool as a forensic database is available to us, it is unforgivable not to make use of it," she says. "For every kit that is not tested, the possibility of identifying, apprehending, trying and prosecuting a violent offender is lost."
Sarah Tofte, the lead rape-kit researcher at HRW, argues that the backlog is symptomatic of a system in which rape victims are wholly disempowered. "Although it takes great courage for a woman to report her rape and assist in the creation of a rape kit" -- during a careful exam, samples of hair, semen, skin cells and fabric fibers are collected -- "the police are failing to respect this and to fulfill their side of the contract by testing the kit and keeping her informed about the case." When DNA evidence is extracted from the kits, it can be checked against forensic databases of violent criminals, and a match can mean that an offender can be identified and prosecuted.
In Los Angeles, an audit conducted by City Controller Laura Chick has shown that the backlog stands at just under 13,000 untested kits, 7,000 of them under the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) and another 5,635 in the County Sheriff's department. Chick also found that local judicial authorities are failing to comply with a California state law that requires victims be told if their kits are not opened within two years of collection.
That two-year deadline is critical: According to California's statute of limitations, kits untested within two years are only valid as evidence for 10 years. Kits tested within the two-year limit that provide DNA evidence, however, can be valid indefinitely if an as-yet-unidentified "John Doe" is indicted for the crime. Most victims who do not hear back from police assume that their kit provided no actionable evidence, but the truth is that their kits might never have been opened.
Rape kits lie untested in Los Angeles and other cities exist despite generous federal funding under the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program. Named for a rape victim whose assailant wasn't apprehended for six years while Smith's rape kit lay untested, the program provided $43 million to state crime labs in 2007. Yet California, along with 16 other states, had its grant slashed by 50 percent last fiscal year -- a funding loss of $500,000 -- because it was failing to make proper use of the monies.
"I'm not interested in hearing, ‘There isn't enough money.' There is enough money," says Chick. "Up until now, this just hasn't been a priority for the mayor, the police chief, the police department or the city council. But it is certainly a priority for the public."
Following the release of Chick's audit in October and a subsequent public uproar, the Los Angeles City Council finally began to take action, allocating $700,000 for the LAPD to hire 16 more crime lab staff and $250,000 to pay private labs. The county sheriff promised his department would examine every rape kit in its storage, beginning right away with the ones that had been there longest. Chick remains cautious, characterizing the city council's decision as "only one step in the right direction" and calling on the LAPD to inventory the backlogged kits as soon as possible in order to finalize a testing plan before next year's budget is drawn up.
Tofte points to New York as an example of how, with political leadership and a clear strategy, police can clear a backlog -- in this case, within three years -- and not let it build up again. It's "just no longer an issue," says Harriet Lessel, executive director of the NYC Alliance Against Sexual Assault. And the results can be stunning: When the New York Police Department processed 16,000 untested kits, it found over 2,000 hits on the DNA database, leading to around 200 arrests.
Chick stresses the need for ongoing vigilance. "If we don't keep up the pressure," she says, "I have no doubt that in a couple of years time we'll be back to where we are today."
The full text of this article appears in the Winter issue of Ms., available on newsstands or by joining the Ms. community.