A $1.4 million federal grant to the state crime lab means those who have gotten away with rape may have reason to fear a DNA match could help hold them accountable for their crimes.
The evidence is there. Victims of rape and sexual assault are entitled to an examination at any hospital emergency department in the state after the assault. It is a long and invasive process that can take 6 to 8 hours, according to Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services (ConnSACS).
But a ConnSACS report released in July says the evidence is largely ignored. In Connecticut, 879 of the so-called “rape kits” were languishing on the shelves at local police departments instead of being sent to a crime laboratory for testing. Among the state police barracks and major crime units, there were 32 untested kits. There were 82 anonymous kits in total.
Thirty-eight percent of those kits — named and unnamed — had been sitting there for more than five years.
Meanwhile, the number of arrests for rape or sexual assault remains low. The National Crime Victimization Survey reported that only 12 percent of reported rape or sexual assault victimizations between 2005 to 2010 resulted in an arrest.
The federal funds indicate a national problem. The District Attorney of New York and the Bureau of Justice Assistance of the U.S. Department of Justice earmarked almost $80 million across 20 states to address kit backlogs across the country. The money is expected to help test 70,000 kits.
The state crime lab, administered through the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, has received approximately half of the 879 kits from municipal police departments and the state police since the backlog came to light. DESPP Spokesman Scott DeVico said the crime lab has analyzed 100 of them so far.
“As they come in we’re testing them and this grant will help us to do that in a more timely manner,” DeVico said.
State law already stipulates that all rape kits should be sent to the lab for testing, but until this year statute has been silent on the timeline for transfer and testing. Standard protocol had been for police in the town in which the rape occurred to pick up the kit from the hospital and transport it to the lab in Meriden.
A new law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, requires local police departments to transfer the kits to the state crime lab within 10 days. The lab must test the kit within 60 days.
The failure to test the kits promptly sends a message to victims that they don’t matter and weakens trust in the judicial system, according to ConnSACS Director of Public Policy and Communication Deborah Heinrich.
“Every kit represents a victim waiting for justice,” Heinrich said. “They fully expect that this is going to be tested and the information is going to be viewed to bring the perpetrator to justice. And we owe it to them to make it happen.”
While other states may have larger numbers to overcome — Detroit alone had 11,000 untested kits before it undertook a comprehensive approach to eliminating the backlog — sexual assault advocates say even one untested kit is too many.
Success in places like Detroit will help inform the working group that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promised to create earlier this year while touting the new state law. Heinrich said a key question for the group to address is why the backlog happened in the first place.
Research suggests contributing factors such as unclear guidelines, lack of funding, staff capacity issues, or stalled or incomplete investigations. But cities and states with extensive backlogs also have found what Heinrich described as a fundamental misunderstanding by law enforcement about the behaviors associated with trauma.
For example, the incorrect or inconsistent recall of an event by the victim may be viewed by the police as lying. Heinrich said investigators would better understand that it is a normal reaction for victims of rape or sexual assault to have difficulty remembering the sequence of events if the officers were trained in trauma-informed interviewing techniques.
It is harder for advocates of sexual assault victims to pinpoint why, exactly, rape and sexual assault seems to be treated differently by law enforcement than crimes like murder and robbery.
“For some reason, it seems to be harder to believe victims of sexual assault than it is to believe victims of other violent crime. And I base that on the evidence we’re seeing in other states and cities where they’ve asked the question ‘why the kits are backlogged,’” Heinrich said. “We don’t know what’s going on in Connecticut until we ask.”
The $1.4 million grant from the Department of Justice requires the state to perform a comprehensive inventory of all backlogged kits in their custody; create a multidisciplinary working group comprised of those in such fields as law enforcement, forensic laboratory personnel, prosecutors, and victim advocates; and designate a site coordinator to oversee the initiative’s implementation.
DeVico said a working group “is in the process of being put together.” He would not say when he expects the membership to be announced.
With the new law set to go into effect in less than a month and the state crime lab facing an influx in testing as the rest of the kits come in, Heinrich said it’s time for the group to get to work determining why kits were held up and how to ensure that Connecticut does not see another backlog in the future.
“We’re bumping up against our deadline here,” she said.