Tracking Software Could Solve America’s Massive Rape Kit Backlog — So Why Aren’t We Using It?

The U.S. has myriad problems when it comes to handling sexual assault accusations, investigations, and prosecutions. Just the fact that there are roughly 400,000 untested rape kits nationwide, potentially holding incriminating DNA that can’t be discovered until processed, is proof enough that things need to improve. However, there’s new hope that tracking software could ensure rape kits are tested in a timely manner, rather than sitting on a dusty shelf in a police evidence locker for years.

“It’s really important that we test every kit that’s out there, the DNA is uploaded, there’s transparency, and the survivors can advocate on their own behalf,” Julie Smolyansky, founder of Test400k, told The Frisky. Test400k, a campaign dedicated to processing every untested kit in the country, is calling for states to start using simple tracking systems to keep the current backlog from growing even more. They mailed an unused rape kit to all 50 governors, releasing each kit’s tracking code to the public to show how easily the packages can be followed. The idea being that if, say, I can track my Amazon order from the warehouse, to the time it’s shipped, to my front door, why can’t states do the same for rape kits, which are far more important than the shit I’m ordering online?

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That’s where STACS DNA’s Track It software comes in. The new product, designed specifically for DNA labs, allows law enforcement, lab technicians, and sexual assault survivors themselves to all keep up with where a rape kit is throughout the entire process. As soon as a sexual assault examiner takes samples from a survivor, they would enter in the system that the kit is ready to be picked up by law enforcement. Once at the police station, the cops would scan it to signify that it was there. The same thing would happen after it’s sent to the DNA lab to be processed and back to the police once tested.

Because some states have specific mandates on how quickly a sexual assault kit has to be tested, the system can also send notifications to remind law enforcement that action need to be taken on a kit. For example, Michigan law requires the police to pick up rape kits from the hospital within 14 days and send them to the lab within another 14 days and the lab must process kits within three months. But, there’s currently nothing warning the police they’re about to miss a deadline. Jocelyn Tremblay, president and CEO of STACS DNA, told The Frisky:

“If you know at any point in time where a kit is, and if you establish alerts in the system to say, ‘Hey it should have hit the front door of the lab a week ago,’ you’re ensuring you don’t lose kits in the process. At the end of the day, if you don’t have a systematic way to have checks and balances, it’s kind of hard.”

Another key aspect of the technology is a notification system for the survivors themselves. Although every state has different laws about survivors’ rights to know about their rape kits, STACS DNA’s software has the option of allowing survivors to opt in for notifications when their kit moves from one location to another and for the police to let them know whether DNA or a match to the DNA was found.

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“Survivors probably don’t want to go call a police department and have to talk about their rape kits over and over again, so this really gives them the ability to, on their own accord, be able to check in from any platform,” Smolyansky said.

Of course, there’s no information identifying survivors in the system, just a tracking number for their kit. So, they can log in from any device and check on their kit’s progress.

Right now, Michigan is the only state seriously considering implementing a tracking software, and the state ran pilot programs on the STACS DNA software, as well as a similar United Parcel Service software. John Bowen, assistant divisions commander for the Michigan State Police’s forensic science division, told The Frisky there wasn’t a good way to keep track of kits’ whereabouts before this technology, explaining that Michigan law enforcement used to just count how many were sent to labs and how many were sent back and try to account for any discrepancies.

As with any new government initiative, money is obviously a factor. States have to buy the software and pay to test all the rape kits, which would be considerably more expensive than not testing thousands of rape kits that end up backlogged. Unlike many states, Michigan now requires all rape kits to be processed if the survivors want them to be, but the financials haven’t been worked out yet to address the influx of kits headed to the lab.

“It won’t be a problem if we get funding that goes with those kits,” Bowen said. “If we don’t get additional funding, it will be a problem going forward.”

At the end of the day, paying for all rape kits to be processed — and paying for a tracking software to make sure they are — comes down to whether or not states take sexual assault seriously.

“Regardless of what the cost is, you put resources behind what you value or what you think is important,” Smolyansky said.

Other states will be looking to Michigan to see which software it implements, how it funds it, and how well the tracking works. “It’s obvious to me that other jurisdictions — states and counties — are looking at the issue as well,” Bowen said, as officials in Michigan are getting calls from other states about what solutions they’re exploring. Washington and Mississippi’s governors signed Test400k’s call to action to test every rape kit, but Mississippi hasn’t acted on tracking rape kits yet. Washington passed a law in April requiring law enforcement in the state to track kits, and funding for a system was approved for 2017.

“A person comes in for a very invasive, horrible thing that is time consuming,” Smolyansky said of getting a sexual assault exam.”How would you not give them the dignity and respect of seeing what’s on that kit and letting them know?”