Rape Kits in Virginia

 webpage_image

By Marjorie Signer, marj.signer@gmail.com

Nationwide, there has been an outcry about the large number of rape kits held in law enforcement agencies, untested and ignored. In 2014, Virginia took action to determine the extent of the rape kit backlog in this state. (Rape kits are officially called PERKs in Virginia – physical evidence recovery  kits.) The Virginia General Assembly is now preparing to consider legislation to ensure kits are handled and tested in a timely, secure fashion. This site is my attempt to focus on the issue and legislation as they evolve; as I learn more, I will share it here. I welcome feedback at marj.signer@gmail.com

But this is just the beginning. Imagine being raped, reporting the rape, enduring an invasive physical exam and painful questioning – and nothing happens! Imagine – DNA evidence being available that could identify rapists and solve crimes that have been unsolved for years. Testing rape kits is an important step in changing the culture of violence – in tracking down and prosecuting rapists and other violent offenders and in enabling women to live in safety and dignity.

Background

In April 2014 Governor McAuliffe signed Senate Bill 658, which had passed both houses of the General Assembly unanimously, requiring all state and local law enforcement agencies to take an inventory of all physical evidence recovery kits (PERKs – the official name in Virginia for rape kits) in their custody that may contain biological evidence and that had not been submitted to the Virginia Department of Forensic Science (DFS) for analysis prior to July 1, 2014.

What is a rape kit?

In July 2015,  DFS released its report on the inventory : 383 law enforcement agencies responded to the request for data (out of a possible 385 agencies). Of this number,  136 agencies reported having  2,369 untested kits in storage and 247 agencies reported having no rape kits in storage (in other words, all rape kits they had ever collected – since 1989 – had been submitted for processing or otherwise disposed of). This initial report was updated because some agencies reported only a partial inventory and had to be asked a second time to report the full number of kits in their custody. (The directions for reporting seemed to be clear and simple but they still did not comply the first time around.) The final report (dated 10/23/15) showed that there were 2,902 untested kits being held by 141 agencies (and the remaining 242 agencies reported having no untested kits).

The law enforcement agencies were asked to provide reasons why these kits were not forwarded to DFS for testing. As an advocate, I was outraged by the reasons. Most often, according to the report, the victim chose not to participate any further in the criminal justice legal process, the police deemed the kit unnecessary (generally because the suspect had acknowledged sexual intercourse had occurred) or prosecutors declined to pursue the case. However, many kits “clearly should have been submitted to DFS for analysis,” the report said. If tested, they could yield DNA evidence that could identify rapists and solve crimes that have been unsolved for years.

While Virginia does not have a large backlog of untested kits, we do not have a uniform process to ensure that a kit that is collected is tested; therefore, rape victims who submit voluntarily to the extensive, invasive post-rape examination cannot be assured their kit will be processed either in a timely fashion or even at all. By any measure, this is wrong.

In addition, the low number of kits submitted to DFS for testing – roughly 700 kits per year – suggests that many rapes are not reported at all. This is an issue outside the scope of this report and this legislation, but it is important for follow up.

A work group appointed by the Virginia Secretary of Public Safety, Brian Moran, was convened in September 2015 to review specific issues in the collection and processing of rape kits raised by the report and met three times (a subcommittee met an additional time). First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe attended the meetings (or was represented by a staff member) and actively participated. (I was an appointed member of this PERK Work Group because of my advocacy on this issue in 2014 and earlier in 2015, when I was legislative vice-president of the National Organization for Women’s (NOW) Virginia chapter.)

As of 12/3/15, it is known that legislation will be introduced in the 2016 session of the General Assembly by the governor as well as by two senators (Barbara Favola, Democrat, and Richard Black, Republican). The bills generally will require that all kits (with specific exceptions) be submitted for analysis, within a specific turnaround time, and be retained for a set amount of time. (There is no statute of limitations for rape in Virginia.)

The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance (Action Alliance) announced its support for consistent and trauma-informed policies and protocols statewide for the collection, storage and testing of PERKs. It distributed information on the issue on 12/2/15 at the League of Women Voters of Virginia Pre-Session Legislative Roundtable in Richmond.

As to existing rape kits that have never been tested, the state has received a $1.4 million grant from the Manhattan district attorney’s $38 million initiative to reduce the national inventory of untested kits. Under the grant, administered by the Office of the Attorney General, Virginia will conduct DNA testing and analyze more than 2,000 untested PERKs  associated with sexual assaults in Virginia. By testing these kits and searching the profiles against DNA databases, law enforcement will be able to identify additional crimes by known perpetrators and make connections between crimes committed by unidentified perpetrators, according to the press release from the office of Attorney General Mark Herring. Virginia will test more than 2,000 kits from 65 police departments that are storing five or more kits. Fairfax County has the most untested kits, followed by Richmond, Alexandria, Arlington, Prince William County and Loudoun County. A  committee will determine which kits to analyze by the end of the year.Additional funding maybe sought to analyze more kits.

In addition, the governor’s budget is expected to include funding to test an increased number of kits – and bipartisan support will be essential in ensuring that this passes.

As to the future, the PERK Work Group considered recommendations for:

  • A study group on “standard of care for sexual assault victims,”
  • A study group on strengthening sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) forensic nursing programs and services to victims,
  • A study group on criteria for when a PERK should be collected from a sexual assault victim who is a minor, and
  • A multi-disciplinary task force on “Preservation of Biological Evidence,” that would review trends, technology advances and backlog issues.

 

Advertisements