State finds 6,000 untested rape kits in Washington

Medical professionals learn how to use the Sexual Assault Evidence Collection kit at Camp Phoenix near Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo by Sgt. Rebecca Linder for the U.S. Army via Wikimedia Commons)

Thousands of sexual assault kits lay waiting for lab testing in Washington, the Washington State Attorney General’s office recently announced in a news release.

Though potentially crime-solving, they have sat in law enforcement or crime lab storage facilities for years.

The state found 6,460 untested kits in an audit of 208 law enforcement agencies across the state.

A sexual assault nurse examiner uses the kits to collect DNA and other materials off the victim to be used as evidence. The oldest one is reportedly from 1982.

“Sexual assault is a devastating crime that affects thousands of Washingtonians,” state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a prepared statement. “These sexual assault survivors deserve justice, and I intend to help them get it.”

The audit was completed after the Attorney General’s Office applied for a $3 million grant from the Department of Justice to assist in the investigation of untested kits. The office has received 25 percent of the grant to inventory the kits, and now that the inventory is completed, Ferguson’s office will request the remainder of the funds and dedicate the maximum amount of money to testing the kits that is allowed by the grant.

Terri Stewart, a sexual assault nurse examiner from Harborview Medical Center, explains that the problem is part funding, part staffing and part sheer volume.

Unlike the portrayal on TV, testing is a lengthy and expensive process. Correcting the backlog takes time and money, and new kits are being submitted to the crime lab every day.

Katharine Hemann, Assistant state Attorney General, explained in a podcast that it is critical to test every kit, even if it is no longer needed in an individual case, in order to get as much information into the crime database as possible to potentially help solve other cases. The more profiles logged into the database, the more connections to other crimes will be found, she said.

In fact, new DNA information has already reopened cold cases. Seattle police charged a man last month on suspicion of a 2007 child rape after evidence from a backlogged kit was tested.

Starting October 29, King County will be part of a statewide tracking system that allows victims to track their own sexual assault kit as it moves from the hospital, to law enforcement, to the crime lab and back to law enforcement.

“I think we are moving in the right direction,” Stewart said, “from where we were before.”

If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, don’t hesitate to reach out to RAINN or one of the many sexual violence programs in Washington state.