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She's been waiting 15 months for her rape kit to be processed. A new proposal to track evidence aims to change that.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Chicago Tribune
by Alison Bowen

She's been waiting 15 months for her rape kit to be processed. A new proposal to track evidence aims to change that.

Sarah Parsons is ready to move forward, to endure a criminal case against the man she said sexually assaulted her, to begin closing a difficult chapter.

But she is waiting on one thing. The evidence collected last year in the emergency room of a Chicago hospital, known as a rape kit, hasn’t yet been analyzed. An attorney advised waiting; the results would likely bolster the case.

Her advocate with Resilience, a group that offers survivor support, told her to expect 10 months to process the rape kit, said 20-year-old Parsons, who lives in the South Loop.

“Ten months goes by, 12 months,” she said. Nearly 15 months later, “I’m still waiting for it.”

Such a wait isn’t unusual, nor is Parsons’ lack of information about where her rape kit is or when evidence, if any, might be delivered. Because rape kits are not tracked electronically, it is difficult to know where they are in the process.

To address this issue, a group of Illinois lawmakers, advocates and law enforcement officials has drafted a proposal for a system to track rape kits. But some say that a tracking system won’t address the most pressing issue: long processing times.

“These long delays, that’s what needs to change,” said Polly Poskin, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault and a member of the commission. “The turnaround time must be shortened.”

The Sexual Assault Evidence Tracking and Reporting Commission, established by law in 2017, finished a proposal this summer to establish a statewide electronic tracking system modeled after similar programs in other states. By better understanding where evidence is, officials hope to give survivors the comfort and confidence that their cases are being taken seriously. Meanwhile, officials say a tracking system could show when and where kits are stalled, and bolster a case for more forensic scientists or other solutions to shorten long turnaround times.

The proposal is the latest in a series of efforts in Illinois to address a decades-long backlog of rape kits by streamlining the processing of evidence.

According to the Illinois State Police, which is in charge of the labs that process evidence, the average time to process DNA evidence for all cases, including sexual assaults, is 285 days. They do not track average processing times specifically for rape kits, but for the quarter ending Sept. 30, 2,079 sexual assault and abuse cases were awaiting analysis, and 586 of these had been received between 181 and 365 days earlier.

In 2010, Illinois was the first state to enact a law requiring that all rape kits be tested, and in the years since, forensic scientists have worked their way through the influx of kits at labs. In August, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed legislation requiring hospitals to have nurses trained to collect evidence, which advocates say will improve evidence and bolster prosecutions.

Illinois state Rep. Margo McDermed, R-Mokena, is working on legislation she hopes to introduce early next year that would mandate a tracking protocol.

“This way, we always know where the kits are and who has them and what their process is,” said McDermed, who is on the commission. “How do you make sure that you keep on track? You have a way to measure.”

Some states already have established tracking systems, and others are considering them.

In Idaho, where a system has been in place for nearly two years, Matthew Gamette, the laboratory system director at Idaho State Police Forensic Services, said 1,100 searches were made last month in the system, which allows survivors — as well as law enforcement officials, hospital workers, lab technicians and prosecutors — to access where a kit is or to update information on where it is. In Idaho, the average turnaround time for rape kits is 209 days, although Gamette said the state hopes to process kits within 30 days by next year.

In Washington state, which began a tracking system in October, state Rep. Tina Orwall said the state aims to use the information gleaned through tracking to reduce typical processing times that stretch from about eight months to a year.

The Illinois commission modeled its proposal on a system being piloted in Michigan. There, the state began a tracking system in one county in August and is working toward a statewide launch. Michigan law mandates a 90-day turnaround time if the lab has adequate resources and personnel. In the last year, evidence was processed in an average of 84 days. Michigan’s system costs about $700,000 per year, including technical upkeep and a 24/7 help desk to assist with any technical issues as people try to access updates.

Cara Smith, the Cook County sheriff's chief policy officer, said allowing survivors to track evidence is the least officials can do to send a message that after victims endure an intrusive exam during a traumatic time, their cases are being taken seriously.

“It’s their body. It’s their evidence,” Smith said. “And they should absolutely know where in this very challenging process it is.”

Smith said she recently mailed a clothing return to J. Crew. She was provided with tracking information. “The first thing that popped into my head was, ‘I can track where my pants that didn’t fit are in the return, and I can’t find out where my rape kit is?’” she said.

With a tracking system, officials could enter information flagging where evidence is — at the hospital, with law enforcement or at the lab.

Most evidence lags at state laboratories, which often lack resources and staff, said Ilse Knecht, policy director at the Joyful Heart Foundation, which monitors rape kit backlogs across the country.

Knecht, who grew up in Champaign but now lives in New York, said that after seeing Illinois take the lead in mandating testing, she expected the state to be further ahead. The Joyful Heart Foundation recommends all kits be submitted to labs within 180 days and tested within 30 days.

“As long as Illinois has been working on this problem, I would like to see that be much faster,” she said.

McDermed blames lack of funding for the slow pace. The state needs more forensic scientists, which require salaries and two years of training.

To speed up rape kit processing statewide, this year the State Police began sending evidence straight to testing for DNA, instead of assessing first whether items like clothing or bedding showed biological material.

Arlene Hall, commander of Illinois State Police’s Forensic Sciences Command, hopes to quicken the pace of processing, ideally to within six months. She said labs are always evaluating how to improve, including the use of robotics to automate more processing. As of June, ISP had 63 forensic scientists working on DNA testing, below the 81 needed to address new cases and reduce the backlog, according to ISP’s annual report. Hall said ISP plans to hire five more forensic scientists in December.

“Our goal is to get the results to the agencies as timely as possible, so they can use those results and investigate,” she said. “It doesn’t do anybody any good if they’re waiting a year or longer.”

And after such a long wait, some survivors might be less willing or able to assist with prosecutions — memories are less crisp, and people might want to simply move on. Meanwhile, while evidence waits to be processed, criminals could remain on the street.

For Parsons, who is studying forensic psychology at Roosevelt University with an eye toward an eventual doctorate, waiting for information has exacerbated an already painful situation. A tracking system would at least provide her information, she said, even if that information was frustrating. “Because they do take so long, it’d be nice to have some kind of knowledge.”

Still, she never wants to use a tracking system. By the time one is established, she hopes her case will be closed.

Twitter @byalisonbowen

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