Washington

Washington poised to become first state to track all rape kits

An evidence bag from a sexual assault case is examined in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston. Officials believe that it Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signs House Bill 2530, it will create the nation’s first statewide tracking system for rape kits.
An evidence bag from a sexual assault case is examined in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston. Officials believe that it Washington Gov. Jay Inslee signs House Bill 2530, it will create the nation’s first statewide tracking system for rape kits. Associated Press file, 2015

Lawmakers in Washington have decided it’s not enough to simply require that evidence from rape victims be submitted for testing.

They now want to track those exam results every step of the way, from hospital to laboratory to police station.

A bill approved by the Legislature last week would create a statewide tracking system for sexual assault forensic exams, commonly known as “rape kits.”

Supporters say the bill will enable rape survivors to keep track of what’s happening in their cases, while pinpointing problems that have caused an estimated 6,000 rape kits to go untested in Washington.

“I would assume a lot of the 6,000 victims thought their kits were tested,” said state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines. “They didn’t know they were sitting on a shelf. So now, they’ll know.”

I have not heard of a tracking system enacted with such specificity in law.

Richard Williams, a criminal justice policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures

The new rape-kit tracking system will use bar codes on every rape kit to “actually allow us to track it through every step of the process,” said Orwall, who sponsored House Bill 2530.

Supporters say the measure, which has been sent to Gov. Jay Inslee, will make Washington the first state to implement a rape-kit tracking system statewide.

The bill says all agencies involved with handling rape kits must participate in the tracking system by June 1, 2018.

“I have not heard of a tracking system enacted with such specificity in law,” Richard Williams, a criminal justice policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said in an email last week.

Rape kits contain swabs and other tools used to collect DNA samples and other evidence from rape victims. They are stocked by police departments and hospitals, and are intended for use immediately after a rape has occurred.

We’ll be able to see, ‘Where are the resources needed?’ And we can keep an eye on how many untested kits we have.

State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, on her bill to create a statewide tracking system for rape kits

Police say that in the past many kits were not sent for testing if the victim knew his or her attacker, or if a suspect admitted to committing the crime. But the failure to submit those kits to a lab also prevented those suspects’ DNA from being entered in national DNA databases that could connect them to other cases.

Cities and states nationwide are now looking at ways to get older kits tested, as well as prevent kits from going untested in the future.

In Washington, the rape-kit tracking system is the second measure lawmakers have passed in two years aimed at preventing rape kits from sitting untested in police department evidence rooms.

Last year, the Legislature approved a bill to require law enforcement agencies to request testing for all rape kits collected after July 2015.

But the law didn’t apply to the thousands of kits already sitting in police evidence rooms throughout the state.

Under Orwall’s new proposal, all the older rape kits would be added to the tracking system, which she said will help state officials decide where to direct limited resources for testing and follow-up investigations.

“We’ll be able to see, ‘Where are the resources needed?’ ” Orwall said. “And we can keep an eye on how many untested kits we have.”

A tracking system in and of itself is sort of victim-centered, survivor-centered. It keeps them involved in the process.

Erika Teschke, founder of Rape Kit WA, which advocates for testing rape kits

Although individual police agencies already use bar codes and electronic systems to track rape kits internally, there isn’t a unified system that tracks rape kits at all agencies throughout the state, said Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

Therefore, Washington doesn’t have detailed information about how many rape kits there are and where they’re located, outside of the informal surveys that helped produce the estimate that there are 6,000 untested kits overall, Barker said.

More importantly, Barker said, the tracking system will allow victims of sexual assault “to have a specific number where they can look at their specific kit and know where it is in the system.”

Erika Teschke — the founder of Rape Kit WA, a group that advocates for testing rape kits — called that “a great thing.” She said right now victims often don’t know where their rape kit is and can’t figure out whom to call to check on its progress.

“A tracking system in and of itself is sort of victim-centered, survivor-centered,” Teschke said. “It keeps them involved in the process, where in the past they’ve been removed from the process.”

If the process isn’t friendly, then the perpetrator does it again and again and again. So we’re working on that as well.

State Rep. Gina McCable, R-Goldendale, who co-chairs state task force on rape kit testing

The state Senate has included about $900,000 in its latest budget proposal to pay for the first year of the rape-kit tracking system.

Still, Teschke said there is much work left to do in Washington with rape kits, including finding money to test the older kits that still sit in storage. Orwall’s bill would allow private donors to contribute money for rape kit testing, but doesn’t set aside state funds for that purpose.

Rep. Gina McCabe, who along with Orwall co-chairs a state task force on the rape kit issue, said lawmakers know their work is far from complete.

After hearing that some victims had difficulty getting a rape kit done at a local hospital, McCabe sponsored a measure this year to study whether there are enough trained nurses available to perform the tests. That proposal, House Bill 2711, cleared the Legislature and has been sent to Inslee’s desk.

McCabe, R-Goldendale, said more work needs to be done to ensure victims feel comfortable coming forward and reporting sexual assaults. That starts by training staff at hospitals and police stations to be compassionate, she said.

“If the process isn’t friendly, then the perpetrator does it again and again and again,” McCabe said. “So we’re working on that as well.”

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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