Katie Whisman (Executive Officer, Kansas Bureau of Investigation) leads the Kansas Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, a statewide multidisciplinary working group tasked with addressing the state’s existing backlog and developing standardized practices to improve the handling of rape kits. Here, Katie shares her experiences with the group, whose successes include achieving 100 percent law enforcement agency participation in a voluntary statewide audit of unsubmitted rape kits.
In the fall of 2014, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation began proactively evaluating the issue of unsubmitted sexual assault kits (SAKs) in Kansas. As part of that effort, we formed a state-level multidisciplinary working group tasked with evaluating the systematic, financial, and legal barriers to SAK testing; identifying the underlying factors that have contributed to the accumulation of unsubmitted SAKs; and helping form recommendations to prevent future SAK accumulation.
A few of our successes include being the first state in the country to conduct a statewide inventory with 100 percent voluntary law enforcement participation, and being the first to develop a state-level protocol for conducting victim notification in delayed cases.
Positive, lasting change depends on a collaborative and high-functioning team. This is especially challenging to accomplish at the state level. To assist other states contemplating a statewide approach to addressing the accumulation of unsubmitted rape kits, I’d like to share our story.
Bring the right people to the table
Bringing the right people to the table is about more than identifying the various stakeholders that should be included; it involves strategy.
It is important to include both practitioners and policymakers within each group. The perspectives of people with “boots on the ground” are important to understanding current processes and challenges, while the policymakers have the ability to facilitate change when issues are identified. We formed our working group to reach as many stakeholders as possible by strategically involving leaders from state-level organizations affiliated with each of the disciplines involved in responding to and investigating sexual assault cases. Our team includes practitioners, policymakers, and, when applicable, representatives from state-level organizations in the following disciplines: law enforcement, forensic nursing, forensic science laboratory, prosecution, and both community- and system-based victim advocacy. This composition has been very effective in understanding the complexities of barriers to SAK testing while enabling vast networks within the state to be reached.
Take time to cross-educate
Taking the time to cross-educate within your working group will contribute to your overall success.
In order to effectively evaluate the systematic, financial, and legal barriers to SAK testing and identify the underlying factors that have contributed to the accumulation of unsubmitted kits, team members must understand each other's roles and responsibilities. One of the most beneficial things we did in our working group was cross-educate. The lab taught us about uses and limitations of the Combined DNA Indexing System (CODIS); prosecutors about the evolution of sexual assault statutes and the statute of limitations; and advocacy representatives about the differences between community- and system-based advocates. After several meetings focused on cross-education, I organized an activity where each discipline identified their role and responsibilities in sexual assault response, what they believed others expected of them, and what they believed to be factors contributing to a lack of a coordinated response. When each sub-group briefed the full working group, the resulting conversation led to the identification of gaps where improvements can be made. It was through cross-education that we established a foundation upon which we have built meaningful professional relationships and created an essential environment of trust and respect.
Set attainable goals and monitor progress
Setting attainable goals and monitoring progress helps keep the group focused on the future.
While this may seem obvious, a unique challenge facing states is the necessity of bringing together a variety of individuals separated geographically. Because of the substantial time and travel commitments from all team members, it is critical that every meeting be substantive and productive. It is important to identify attainable goals, set recurring meetings, and build meeting agendas with specific goals in mind. One practice that has been helpful for our working group is providing an agenda and reading materials in advance of each day-long meeting. Even if done briefly, routinely summarizing progress provides members with a sense of accomplishment and helps to clearly identify next steps.
Use existing networks
Using existing networks to overcome stigma and talk about positive progress allows state sites to reach the broader stakeholder populations, making it easier to keep them informed and engaged.
It is important to use existing networks and talk frequently about these issues and the collaboration necessary to effect positive change. Be approachable and take every opportunity to speak at state conferences, association meetings, in-service gatherings, and have personal conversations with chiefs, sheriffs, and prosecutors whenever you have the opportunity. This not only keeps them informed; it creates the trust and engagement necessary for stakeholders to buy into better-informed policies and best practice recommendations.
More work ahead
No one is proud of the fact that unsubmitted sexual assault evidence accumulated for decades in law enforcement property rooms. As you embark on this journey, it is critically important to continuously emphasize that evaluating and addressing this issue is not about pointing fingers or assigning blame; it is about recognizing that we all want to do the right thing and doing so requires in-depth stakeholder collaboration. The issues underlying the accumulation of unsubmitted kits are multi-faceted, complex, and interrelated; they do not belong to any one stakeholder group. While our work is not finished, I believe our willingness to keep the conversation ongoing and relevant has contributed to the forward momentum and success of our project.
-By Katie Whisman, April 17, 2017
END THE BACKLOG is an initiative of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.