Considering the Rape Kit Backlog in Ohio

This week, NPR’s All Things Considered featured an in-depth look at the rape kit backlog in Ohio and the state’s efforts to end its backlog of untested kits.

In 2009, Cleveland Plain Dealer reporters Rachel Dissell and Leila Atassi were covering a story about a serial murderer in the city of Cleveland who had raped and killed 11 women. Their investigative reporting led them to questions about rape kit processing in the city—when were the kits that survivors submitted in the aftermath of their assaults being tested? What was being done with the evidence?

At the time, the Cleveland police simply didn’t know. They were not tracking their untested kits or sending them to the crime lab for testing in a uniform manner, if at all. So they began a project to count the untested kits in their storage facilities, eventually finding more than 4,000 kits. 

Now, at the request of Attorney General Mike DeWine, police departments across the state are doing similar counts—gathering their inventory of untested rape kits and submitting them for testing to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI), at no cost to their departments. Since Attorney General DeWine’s initiative began in 2011, the BCI has received more than 5,215 kits from 111 of the state’s 970 law enforcement agencies—the largest percentage from Cleveland, followed by Akron, Cincinnati and Toledo. So far, 2,564 kits have been tested, resulting in 837 DNA matches in CODIS, the national DNA databank.

The first comment from a listener on NPR’s story illustrates the response many, including survivors, have upon learning about the backlog: “I have to say this story shocks me, I'm sure most of us assumed it was automatically done in every rape case.”

Unsurprisingly, many people—survivors included—assume that rape kits are tested, and when law enforcement does not follow up, DNA testing occurred and was inconclusive, or that there simply was no information to share. NPR’s segment touched upon how jarring and re-traumatizing it can be for survivors when the criminal justice system attempts to re-engage them after so many years, a process known as victim notification:

“As the cases get solved…prosecutors and detectives are finding themselves in the difficult position of knocking on the doors of rape victims and asking them to talk about horrific things.”

Those who are responsible for having these conversations—usually members of law enforcement—need protocols to guide them through the process. They face difficult questions, such as when, if at all, notification should occur, who should deliver the notification and how. They frequently report that they worry about what harm they may be doing to survivors, and that they would like greater access to information on best practices. And survivors must have access to the information and resources they may need or want as they re-open the trauma of their assault and possibly re-engage with the criminal justice system.  

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The title of NPR’s segment says a lot about the context of the problem: “Tested At Last, Rape Kits Give Evidence to Victims’ Stories.” The rape kit backlog is clear, quantifiable evidence of our inadequate response to survivors and to sexual violence in general—that rape just isn’t taken seriously, that it’s not a priority. As my colleague Liz wrote last week, law enforcement must count, track and test the kits in their evidence rooms—they must believe and honor survivors' decisions to participate in the criminal justice process.

The results in Ohio—and in places like Detroit, where testing has identified 78 possible serial rapists and linked to crimes in 20 other states—demonstrate just how important it is to the survivors whose lives have been affected by the backlog and the communities that are now safer as a result of testing.

To learn more about the status of the backlog in your state, visit our interactive map.

To advocate for reform and transparency to your elected officials, click here.

To support our work to ENDTHEBACKLOG of untested rape kits with a donation, click here.

- By Lendon Ebbels, January 28, 2014

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