Across the country, there's a backlog of kits containing potential evidence of sexual assaults. Victim advocates say the situation threatens public safety. Lawmakers in dozens of states are pushing for funding, and in Texas, one state representative has offered an innovative solution.
Thousands of rape kits sit sealed and untested in forensics labs and law enforcement offices in Texas. What's missing is state and local funding to pay to analyze the evidence in many of those kits.
If state Rep. Victoria Neave has her way, residents could help chip in. When Texans go to the Department of Public Safety office to apply for a driver's license, they'd be asked if they'd like to help the state pay to test DNA evidence from sexual assault cases — in the same way they're asked if they want to donate to support veterans or organ donation.
The bill, introduced by Neave, a Democrat from Dallas, has passed the House, and the state's Senate is expected to vote on it soon.
"Our bill is expected to generate $1 million per year and would help address and end the backlog of untested rape kits," Neave says.
When rape victims go to the hospital, they can get forensic evidence taken to help identify and prosecute their assailant. Each kit can cost between $500 and $2,000 to test, so many don't get tested.
The scale of the backlog in Texas is unclear. Neave says there are about 4,000 in Dallas County, another 3,000 or so in and around Austin, and 3,600 more in a lab in Houston.
"That's just in a few counties," she says. "We anticipate there are thousands more that are across the whole state that are untested."
A growing problem
The Lone Star State is not alone in amassing a backlog of untested rape kits. Lawmakers in 27 states filed legislation this year to help deal with the situation.
And Texas has tried to deal with this before. Lawmakers allocated $11 million to clear a backlog of nearly 20,000 rape kits discovered in 2011. The state is still working through kits dating far back to the mid-'90s, but that money was restricted, so it only pays to test old kits. Lawmakers are planning to budget more money for testing this year, but advocates say that still won't stop kits collected in the future from being backlogged because, again, it would only address old kits.
Victims' advocates say each kit represents a person who says she or he was raped.
"Sexual assault is unique because the victim's body is the crime scene," says Alisha Byerly from the Women's Center of Tarrant County in Fort Worth, who supervises a team of advocates who help victims when they go to the hospital.
Collecting a rape kit often takes hours, and Byerly says it's a difficult process. The victim has to re-tell all the details of the rape, and then a nurse examines, swabs and photographs her most private places, gathering samples of hair, semen, fabric fibers and skin cells. It's evidence of a crime that's just happened. In most cases, DNA evidence needs to be collected within 72 hours of the assault.
"In the process of already being very mentally traumatizing, and having all that control taken away from their body, and them trying to regain this control, they're extremely uncomfortable and it's extremely invasive," Byerly says.
After all of that, Byerly says, to put that evidence on a shelf and ignore it is deeply discouraging for victims.
Ilse Knecht says it's a symptom of a larger social and political problem. "The rape kit backlog is actually a systemic failure of the criminal justice system to take sexual assault cases seriously," she says.
It's impossible to know just how big the backlog is nationwide because a lot of states, like Texas, don't keep track. But Knecht says it's been a problem in states and cities across the country. And that, she says, threatens public safety.
"Rapists are very often serial offenders," she says. "They commit all kinds of crime. They commit crimes against people they know and people they don't know and they just don't stop."
When Detroit started testing 10,000 untested kits that it had warehoused for years, it identified more than 780 suspected serial rapists. It led to dozens of convictions, and connected crimes in 40 states. In Cleveland, evidence from old rape kits connected a man to 15 sexual assaults.
No nationwide standard
Even if there were adequate funding, not all kits should be tested, Knecht says, because victims have the right to have a rape kit collected without reporting the crime to the police. In Texas, the Department of Public Safety holds onto the kits for two years, giving survivors time to decide to file charges later. Other states save kits for different amounts of time. Still, Knecht stresses that the backlog is primarily made up of kits that should be tested, because they are evidence of a crime that has been reported to law enforcement.
Knecht says states vary widely when it comes to standards for testing and tracking rape kits. Eventually, she hopes that every state develops laws to mandate testing of all rape kits connected to reported assaults quickly, and set up a system for survivors to track their own kit anonymously.
In Texas, bills have also been introduced to require law enforcement to track rape kits after they're collected.
"We are seeing legislators across the country finding the dollars in their budgets because they prioritized it, and saying this is something we need to invest in, it's a public safety issue," Knecht says.
Neave says she still thinks it's better for state and local governments to budget the money to pay for testing. At least through public donations, she says, there will be some money to help end the backlog.
"It shouldn't get to the point of us having to ask individuals to contribute," says Neave, "but I believe in the hearts and compassion of our fellow Texans that a dollar here, a dollar there, and all of us working together can generate funds to help these women and victims of sexual assault get justice."