California enables sexual assault victims to track status of rape kits with online system

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Wednesday, November 2, 2022
California enables sexual assault victims to track rape kits online
California officials announced an initiative to launch an online portal for survivors of sexual assault to track the status of rape kits.

California Attorney General Rob Bonta has announced an initiative to launch an online portal for survivors of sexual assault. Delays in testing evidence from those assaults have been a lost opportunity for investigators and a source of frustration for victims for years.

The state is the first in the nation to hire a sexual assault evidence outreach coordinator, Sarai Crain, to work with investigators and medical facilities to process that evidence.

The new online tracking system, announced Tuesday, will be used for victims to track the status of rape kits. It was required under a law approved by state lawmakers last year.

It follows a 2017 California law that requires law enforcement agencies to submit the evidence for testing within 20 days and requires crime labs to test the evidence within 120 days or provide reasons for any delay.

Bonta said the goal is to end the backlog of rape kits by local agencies and keep survivors better informed.

Of nearly 6,400 kits collected in 2020, 90% were analyzed by May 2021, according to an annual report by the attorney general's office. The rest were in various stages of processing. About half the tests found DNA that was compared to other DNA on the FBI's database, and nearly 800 resulted in "hits" or matches with offenders in the database.

Another nearly 200 kits were not submitted for testing for reasons including that the suspect already was known or the victim was not seeking to prosecute. The annual report for last year is not yet completed.

The evidence is collected during medical examinations following sexual assaults, and can be used to link the assault to a suspect in existing DNA databases or develop a DNA profile that can be used in the future.

The new online system provides information to survivors on the status of their sexual assault evidence collected since January 1, 2018. Victims can track whether their kits have been received by a law enforcement agency, are being sent to a laboratory for testing, have been received by a lab, are undergoing DNA analysis or have had the DNA analysis completed.

California is among 30 states and Washington, D.C., that have committed to establishing a tracking system, according to the End the Backlog website run by the nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation founded by producer, director, actress, and advocate Mariska Hargitay.

However, "that doesn't address the older kits that are in some places still sitting on shelves," said Ilse Knecht, the group's director of policy and advocacy.

A 2020 audit looking mainly at kits collected before 2018 found nearly 14,000 untested kits at the local level across the state prior to the new law.

Crain's job "is the first of its kind that will focus on the rape kit backlog," Knecht said. "The goal is to get those kits that are older than get a real count of what the number is across the state and then make sure they're being sent in for testing."

Her job will include linking law enforcement agencies with public or private laboratories, according to Bonta's office. Crain most recently was deputy chief for Oakland's Department of Violence Prevention. Previously she was executive director of Bay Area Women Against Rape, the nation's oldest rape crisis center.

Aside from Crain's assistance, Knecht said she will propose that California legislators next year pass a law requiring local agencies to test those old kits.

The tests generated some controversy earlier this year when San Francisco's prosecutor revealed that police there had used a DNA sample collected from a woman during a 2016 rape investigation to link her to a burglary in late 2021. State lawmakers passed a law banning the practice.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.