Sexual assault kit tracking system needed in Massachusetts so victims can check status, advocates say
July 13, 2017
MassLive (The Republican online) by Scott J. Croteau
Part of a MassLive special report on untested rape kits in Massachusetts. Related article: Rape Kits: Helping seek justice for rape survivors
When Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law requiring forensic evidence of rape and sexual assault to be preserved for 15 years, politicians, rape victims and advocates lauded the measure.
But amongst the fanfare, there were a few items tucked within the originally proposed bill that make the final cut. One of those provisions was the creation of a way for victims to track the status of rape kits.
It is one of the biggest issues for rape survivors in Massachusetts, according to advocate groups.
"If we had a good tracking system that would be really helpful for the public ... and for the law enforcement themselves, and by that I mean for the bigger criminal justice system to know the state of the state in Massachusetts," said Maureen Gallagher, the policy director of Jane Doe Inc.
The towns listed as having untested rape kits were Acushnet, Arlington, Billerica, Brookline, Charlton, Lincoln, North Attleboro, Northborough, Watertown, Webster, Weston and Wilbraham.
While the new law preserving the sexual assault kits allows for the evidence to be retained for 15 years - the same amount of time the statute of limitations remains in these cases - the law doesn't mandate a time frame for when the kits have to be tested or allow a way for survivors to track the results.
Other states across the county, Texas for example, have laws requiring sexual assault victims to be notified about the status of their rape kits and limiting how long the kits can remain on the shelf.
A rape survivor in Texas has the right, upon request, to know if their kit was submitted for testing at a crime lab. The survivor can also learn if a DNA profile was found and whether the profile was checked in a national DNA database.
The law preserving rape kits for 15 years allows for victims to decide if they want the case prosecuted once they have more time to think. Six months, the previous amount of time for preservation, just didn't give victims enough time.
"For some folks six months isn't enough time for that," Gallagher said. "It does increase the opportunity to be able to for a survivor to sort make that decision to have it tested."
Bowdler was 23 when she was raped in June 1984. Now she's an advocate with the Rape Kit Action Project, which seeks justice for rape survivors and accountability for rapists.
Until the recent legislation passed, many kits would be destroyed after a 6-month waiting period, said Katia Santiago-Taylor, the Manager of System Advocacy at the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center. If the kits were not destroyed, they may have been held in a police evidence room.
"In the next few years, yes there's going to be thousands of kits in some sort of warehouse," Santiago-Taylor said.
While this will be a major step for victims who decide they want to report their assault months or years after it occurred, Santiago-Taylor said the number of victims who do decide to report it after one year is small.
Rep. Natalie Higgins of the 4th Worcester District and Rep. Carmine Gentile of the 13th Middlesex District have co-sponsored a bill to add a tracking system for sexual assault kits.
"We just want to make sure that survivors, who for whatever reason might not want to report it right away or that the process itself takes a really long time, to make sure they know at any given time where they rape kit is," Higgins said. "We don't want to have a case where a kit goes missing or it is hard to find."
Sexual assault victims who go through the long process of having a rape kit test done - a four to seven-hour process - can decide to have the kit done but not report the assault. The preservation of the kits for 15 years now allows for survivors to have time to decide in conjunction with the statute of limitations of the crime.
The bill is all about accountability, said Higgins, a former rape crisis counselor for Pathways for Change in Worcester. Going through a rape kit test is a traumatic experience and victims need to know the kit is being processed and where it is held, she said.
Higgins believes the proposed bill, H.3614, will supplement the law passed in October more whole.
The bill would establish a statewide sexual assault kit tracking system run by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security. There are multiple lawmakers supporting the bill.
The system would track the location and status of sexual assault kits from collection, then to storage, testing and any destruction or preservation. It would also allow victims to anonymously track or receive updates on the status of their kits.
Reports detailing the number of kits in the system, the status of the testing and destruction of kits would also have to be conducted by EOPSS, the bill proposes.
Higgins, who counseled teen survivors, said for a lot of victims who decide to go through with the criminal process it can be a long and difficult process.
"So anything we can do as a state to say we are going to make this as easy as possible, we're not going to make you hunt for your rape kit, we're not going to make you keep calling the victim witness advocate back because they are not getting back to you, anything we can do to make sure survivors who already have gone through not only the trauma of the violence itself, but are going through the trauma of going through a criminal or civil proceeding, I think that is really important that we take it seriously," Higgins said.
The full extent of the backlog cannot be known unless the state requires all municipal police departments and state police to complete a full audit of their evidence rooms for untested kits.
Gentile said similar legislation has been passed in other states. If the tracking system gets set up, it would make the ability for a survivor to check the status "painless" or ask questions about why their kit hasn't been tested, he said.
"Today these kits gets misplaced, it not clear where it is and in a lot of cases it has been sitting on a shelf for five years. This would be the perfect tool to use inn the future to aid in prosecution and make sure kits are tested in a timely manner."
Heidi Sue LeBoeuf, director of counseling services at Pathways for Change in Worcester, said victims have to rely on the police department investigators, prosecutors or victim witness advocates to find out the status of their kits.
"These kits represent so much for a survivor," she said, noting she's seen cases where a victim found it difficult to locate their kits and learn if it was tested.
Having a database and tracking system adds accountability, she said. It will formalize the chain of custody, even if it adds more work for experts at the State Police Crime Lab, LeBoeuf said.
Baker on Wednesday signed a law that will require forensic evidence of rape and sexual assault to be kept for 15 years, in line with the statute of limitations for those crimes.
In 2015, EOPSS released a report stating the amount of untested rape kits had diminished after roughly 16,000 kits had been reportedly listed as untested in 2007. The number decreased to almost 500 in 2015.
EOPSS sent out surveys to departments across the state, including the State Police, in order to attain the number of untested rape kits in the agencies' possession as of Sept. 1, 2014.
The 2015 report however showed only of 75 departments and the State Police responded out of the 351 communities in Massachusetts. EOPSS Secretary Daniel Bennett said it is time to have a complete audit from every local police department on how many untested kits are in their possession.
Bennett cannot force the local departments to respond however.
"I don't know if we can ever have an effective audit without that accountability," LeBoeuf said. "You are relying on whatever internal systems they might devise. If we don't have universal systems statewide, then we are comparing apples and oranges."
More than a dozen police departments across the state were sent public information requests from MassLive asking about the number of untested kits in their possession. Worcester Police said more than 1,300 rape kit tests were in their possession, but all had been tested. Springfield and Boston Police reported having no untested rape kits in their evidence rooms.
Other departments that reported zero kits included: Quincy, Southbridge, Lynn, Fall River, Lawrence and Barnstable.
The responses were hard for advocate groups to believe.
Framingham police said the department had six untested kits as of April 24; Lowell said it had three in March, but that they would soon be transported to the State Police Crime Lab. Falmouth had one untested kit.
As of March 2017, the State Police Crime Lab has 98 untested sexual assault kits in their possession. There were 92 kits for reported assaults and eight kits for unreported assaults, according to a public records request made by MassLive.
The crime lab holds the kits for the State Police and the district attorney's offices across the state.
David Procopio, spokesman for the Massachusetts State Police, said the crime lab made testing kits a priority.
"That was one of the priorities over the last few years by our forensic group to accelerate the testing of kits and to reduce the turnaround time," he said. "I think the success the lab has had in meeting that goal in reflected in the fact that they have obtained full accreditation for all the labs in the system."
The crime lab earned national and international accreditation from the National Association of Crime Lab Directors, an extensive process involving intense scrutiny.
The sexual assault kits are tracked in an electronic database by the crime lab, Procopio said. The data is in the Laboratory Information Management System, which contains the date the kit was taken from a hospital.
The system also shows if a victim reported the assault to law enforcement or did not.
Gallagher said that a more systemized tracking system for rape kits would be beneficial.
"If there's just some really systematic way to know when a kit is completed that its picked up by law enforcement that it makes it to the crime lab, how many days it's there before its tested," Gallagher said. "So that we can identify if at some point there are gaps... That's when we can advocate for resources. I don't think that anybody at the crime lab not doing those kits because they don't want to."
Santiago-Taylor thinks much of the room for improvement lies with creating more awareness and reducing victimization or blame. There are also still many survivors who feel they have to prove that they were assaulted.
"Not everyone is going to want to report and that is fine," Santiago-Taylor said. But when victims do want to report their assault, "I think it would be great if we get to a place where it is not the survivors responsibility to prove that it happened."
Homicides and sexual assaults are the two highest priorities at the lab when it comes to DNA testing, Bennett said. He could not discuss any proposed legislation until it gets on the governor's desk.
A new facility being created to house State Police evidence and Trial Court evidence would allow for a bar code system to track sexual assault kits, he said.
Bennett, a former prosecutor who last served in the Worcester County District Attorney's Office, said he wouldn't want victims going to the lab to check on the status of a sexual assault kit because it could break the relationship prosecutors, investigators and victim witness advocate have with the survivors.
"If know if I were still a prosecutor and it was my case, I wouldn't want someone to be able to go to the people that were doing the evidence tracking and be able to say to them, 'Where does my sexual assault kit fit in the queue at the Lab?' I would want them coming back to myself or in particular the victim witness advocate that is working with them on a day to day basis and ask them what's going on with my case," he said, noting it allows for continuity. "That's where the real relationship should be built up."
MassLive reporter Melissa Hanson contributed to this story.