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AG: Team of Experts Working To Clear Backlog Of Thousands Of Untested ‘Rape Kits’

File photo/Credit: Sgt. Rebecca Linder
Creative Commons

Missouri officials announced last year that there were more than 5,000 untested sexual assault evidence kits, also known as “rape kits,” sitting in storage—in hospitals and law enforcement facilities across Missouri—still waiting to be processed. Those kits contain the forensic evidence gathered after someone says they’ve been raped.

Missouri’s new Attorney General, Eric Schmitt, sat down with KSMU’s Jennifer Moore for an interview on how this happened an how the state is addressing this large backlog of untested evidence. You can hear the interview below by clicking the “Play” icon.

Number of untested kits likely “much higher” than 5,000

Missouri has been awarded a $2.8 million grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance—that’s part of the US Department of Justice—to address the backlog of evidence kits.

The severity of the backlog came to light in 2017 when the Columbia Missourian newspaper’s investigation led former Attorney General Josh Hawley to follow up with a voluntary survey of agencies involved. The results of that survey indicated there were at least 5,424 untested sexual assault kits statewide.

Schmitt says that figure is likely far less than the actual total.

“That 5,000 number that you referenced really only accounts for about 40% of the agencies or hospitals that could have responded. So you have 60% [who didn’t respond]. So that number is actually much higher than that, probably,” he said.

When asked how the state failed to keep track of the evidence kits, Schmitt said he wasn’t certain.

“It’s hard to say.  I mean, I think probably over time there wasn’t a way—a central way to log all of it,” Schmitt said.

That is all supposed to change going forward.

The SAFE Kit Initiative: Missouri’s plan to address the backlog

Schmitt says his office has brought together a multi-disciplinary group of law enforcement officials, victim advocacy groups and health care providers to team up on tackling the program.

Leading that group is Judge M. Keithley Williams, a former trial judge in Jasper County and treatment court administrator in the City of St. Louis. The group of experts is part of an effort the AG’s office is calling The SAFE Kit Initiative.

The multi-disciplinary group met in March. Other organizations represented there were the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, the Missouri State Highway Patrol and various hospitals, according to Schmitt’s office.

The grant will go toward taking an inventory of the untested kits, Schmitt said. The goal is to have those initial steps completed within six months.

“Then we’ll have a tracking system that will allow, [and] really empower victims to know where things stand,” Schmitt said.

Only then will the actual testing begin, he said.  He did not have a timeline for how long it would take before the testing of the thousands of evidence kits was complete.

Analyzing how this happened

In May of 2018, former Attorney General’s Hawley’s office released this preliminary report of the voluntary survey’s findings, detailing some reasons why the backlog may have occurred.

It showed, among other things, that law enforcement agencies and hospitals have “inconsistent practices involving the retention and testing of rape kits.”

The report also said that  some law enforcement agencies don’t document why each rape kit is not submitted to testing, and that some agencies did not notify rape survivors before their sexual assault evidence was destroyed.

Schmitt said his office is focused on eliminating the backlog rather than analyzing how the backlog was allowed to accrue.

“We’re in this for the long haul. We want to make sure we do this right,” Schmitt said.

Springfield’s role in The SAFE Kit Initiative

The SAFE Kit Initiative’s multi-disciplinary group addressing the backlog includes Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams.

Last year, CNN featured the Springfield Police Department for destroying evidence from some sexual assault evidence kits.  Chief Williams responded with">this recorded video apology to victims who were affected.

“The Springfield Police Department takes full responsibility for what we now know is mistakes in our handling of past sexual assault cases, particularly with regard to the testing or disposal of evidence contained in sexual assault kits,” Williams said in a recorded video shared by the city.

In a statement, the City of Springfield said the CNN report contained several errors and that all of the cases highlighted in the investigative story were from 2012 or earlier. In 2014, SPD became one of the first agencies in Missouri to begin submitting all rape kits to the crime lab for testing, according to that same statement.

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