How Pa.’s backlog of untested rape kits ‘denies justice’ for victims

Pennsylvania has a backlog of more than 1,200 untested sexual assault evidence collection kits, or rape kits. That means more than 1,200 victims of sexual assault are still seeking answers and closure.

In Centre County, police departments have a “manageable” number of cases, according to State College police Lt. Keith Robb, so a backlog doesn’t exist in the region. However, those rape kits are then transported to crime labs that are oftentimes underfunded and understaffed.

Even without a backlog, it’s a long and arduous process for victims of sexual assault.

“It’s a meat grinder, it is so stressful for a victim to go through,” Robb said. “Obviously going through the crime itself is beyond words, but meeting with a guy like me and explaining something so intimate is very difficult.”

The Mount Nittany Medical Center Emergency Department conducts about 70-75 rape kit exams for patients in and around Centre County each year, according to Nicki Watson, a registered nurse and sexual assault nurse examiner at the hospital. Eight have been done so far this year, she said.

Once the rape kit exam is completed, lab testing usually takes weeks for confirmation that DNA has been found and then Robb said it’s sent to another lab for a DNA analysis, which can take nine to 15 months. If the suspect is known, that speeds the process up. But if the perpetrator is unknown, it may take years to get any answers. Those unknown DNA profiles are sent through CODIS (Combined DNA Index System), which is the national identification database run by the FBI that contains the DNA of all known convicted sex offenders and those who committed serious felonies. If there’s no match, Robb said the unknown DNA profile stays in the database.

In 2009, Robb said within a few months three women reported that they had been raped. He said each had very little memory of the incident, but they knew something happened to them. Their rape kits all came back with the same DNA profile, meaning it’s a serial rapist. Robb said that if the man ever gets convicted of anything, CODIS will match his DNA with the existing profile.

Act 27 was enacted in September 2015, requiring all rape kits (no matter the circumstance) that were in police departments’ evidence rooms to be sent for testing, and now each kit they receive has to be sent to the lab within 15 days from when it was taken, Robb said. Previously, sending rape kits to the lab was at the discretion of the investigator.

“I think a lot of departments are overwhelmed — they get so many that they just don’t get to it,” Robb said. “...Some places get three a night — after a while they pile up, so I can see maybe them falling through the cracks.”

He said State College police gets about one to three kits a month, and an officer drives the kits, along with other evidence, to the Pennsylvania State Police crime lab in Harrisburg every two weeks. Robb keeps an Excel sheet of all the sexually related cases that State College police handles. “Sexually related” includes sexual assault and rape, indecent touching and indecent exposure. His count also includes historical cases, which might have happened years ago but were recently reported, and anonymous tips.

In 2016, 75 sexually related cases were reported, 30 of which resulted in rape kits that were sent to the lab. Last year, 104 cases were reported, with 21 kits collected and tested.

“Most of (Centre County’s) departments are diligent. It’s not an unreasonable amount of cases — too many, don’t get me wrong — but it’s manageable,” Robb said.

Funding is a major part of the backlog issue, according to state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale.

About 700 kits have been tested since 2016, DePasquale reported, but the backlog isn’t being eliminated quick enough. Last month, DePasquale asked Gov. Tom Wolf to include $1.2 million in the 2018-19 state budget for the remaining 1,200 kits to get tested. According to the Joyful Heart Foundation, it costs between $1,000 and $1,500 to test one kit.

“When you think about getting rid of the backlog ... it helps get these bad people brought to justice, but it also cracks down on or prevents future crime because 90 to 95 percent of rapists are serial rapists,” DePasquale said.

What to expect during a rape kit exam

The about four-hour process is “not a pleasant experience,” Watson said.

When a rape victim comes to the ER, the sexual assault response team, which includes a specialized forensics nurse, a law enforcement officer and an advocate from the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, assembles.

The patient will be taken into a private room and tell his or her story to the SART nurse. The patient will not have to tell their story more than once and each step of the exam is optional.

During the exam, the SART nurse will typically work from head to toe, taking oral swabs, cleaning under the fingernails, doing cultures of genitalia and sometimes the rectum, taking photos of injuries, using a black light to find body fluids, scrapping debris from feet and collecting other miscellaneous evidence. The exam varies on a case by case basis, Watson said. If something requires more attention, a physician will get involved.

Watson said the most important thing is to make sure the patient is OK, but she encourages them to have the rape kit exam.

“You may not be interested in an exam today, but next week you may wish that you had one and it’s going to be too late,” she said. “You don’t have to press charges or talk to police, you don’t have to make any of those decisions right now... but the evidence, we just have a limited time to get that.”

The cost of the exam is covered by the Victims Compensation Assistance Program, Watson said.

MNMC collects evidence for the rape kit up to 96 hours after the assault occurred. The greater the amount of time that passes, the less likely it is to find DNA. However, Watson encourages people to still come to the ER if it’s been more than 96 hours because there are still resources available, such as getting prophylactic medication for STDs and addressing pregnancy concerns.

Watson said they do as much as they can to keep the patient comfortable, such as provide plenty of blankets so they’re not exposed for the whole exam.

A chain of custody is in place, which means the kit is accounted for at all times to keep the evidence from being compromised. The nurse will sign it off to the police officer, who will lock it up in the department’s evidence room until it’s taken to the crime lab.

Oftentimes, alcohol is involved in sexual assault cases. The hospital and police have an amnesty policy so that people can report a sexual assault without fear of retribution for drinking underage, Watson said.

An advocate from the CCWRC is also available to the patient for support and to answer questions or offer information on available resources.

“Right when you’ve been a victim of sexual assault, that’s a crisis point, and people aren’t always processing information the way they (normally) might,” said Anne Ard, executive director of the CCWRC.

Ard said people may wait to report a sexual assault or get examined because they aren’t sure if what happened to them was rape.

“We have some ideas in our heads and in our society about what real rape looks like, that it’s a stranger jumping out at you from behind the bushes,” she said.

More often than not, it’s an assault by somebody that they know and it can be difficult to process that situation, Ard said.

The backlog of rape kits delays the process and “denies justice” for the victim.

“It means your life is basically on hold for a few years, and it really makes it hard to move the healing process forward because there’s not any closure,” Ard said.

Kelsey Thomasson: 814-231-6461, @KelsThomasson