“People care about this issue; they just don’t know it’s a problem,” explains Tia Palermo, assistant faculty member of the Department of Preventative Medicine at Stony Brook University.
She is referring to the current nationwide backlog of unanalyzed Sexual Assault Kits (SAKs), commonly known as Rape Kits. The projected estimate of SAKs that have not been tested to yield DNA profiles of potential assailants is around 180,000 throughout the United States.
Palermo heads the collaboration between Stony Brook University and an activist organization called Natasha’s Justice Project, which is championing this problem. Palermo, who has dedicated herself to the study of sexual violence, specifically in the Congo, was contacted by Natasha’s Justice Project and now is in charge of the research aspect of the project.
Their collaborative efforts are aimed at finding the exact number of unanalyzed SAKs and comparing processes and policies used by various jurisdictions regarding the backlog in order to discover which are the most or least effective.
This research includes surveying jurisdictions in New York State and interviewing law enforcement officials about such things as the number of untested SAKs in their agencies, how those SAKs are currently being processed, and who is doing the testing.
There are differences state to state when it comes to deciding which cases get priority for testing. For example, Illinois has mandated that every SAK reported must be tested, whereas New York does not go by this policy. The goal is to see which policy best addresses and resolves the problem and to enforce that policy everywhere.
The systematic failures that caused such an extensive backlog consists of many factors, such as capacity restraints, limited staff, limited resources and the various cases that deem certain SAKs unnecessary, according to the group’s research.
Natasha S. Alexenko, founder of Natasha’s Justice Project, outlines other reasons for the breakdown. “Money is certainly an issue, as each rape kit costs between $800 and $1500 to process. Other important factors include a lack of consistency in the recording of data and a breakdown in communication between DNA labs and law enforcement officials.”
The National Institute of Justice published an exhaustive article on the backlog called “The Road Ahead,” which gave the examples of cases where the consent of the victim is the issue at hand, cases where prosecutors have not called for DNA evidence, or cases where a suspect has not been identified as the situations in which SAKs will remain untested.
Conversely, cases known as “acquaintance rapes” can fall in this category because the identity of the alleged assailant is known, making DNA evidence unnecessary. Character biases or cases considered weak will also relegate their respective SAKs to the shelves of police stations, hospitals, or crime labs indefinitely.
Palermo points out that some of these decisions are based on faulty logic. DNA can always be useful as corroborative evidence, to exonerate somebody who is falsely accused, or to test against CODIS, the record of DNA profiles of convicted criminals.
Alexenko illustrates the importance of having the DNA profiles: “We know that people that commit sexual assault are often repeat offenders.”
Since many of the SAKs are years, even decades old, one issue that has arisen is notifying victims who may have emotionally moved on or may have families who do not know about their assault.
The article “The Road Ahead” emphasizes that “there are real people behind each and every one of the sexual assault kits that remain untested. It will be difficult for each one, regardless if they welcome a renewed investigation.” Questions remain difficult to answer on how to notify the victims, and, once notified, what instructions to give them.
Alexenko, who is also a rape survivor, was notified in 2008 that her assailant from the 1993 assault had been identified. A detective went to her house to inform her personally. “I hope that all victims of cold cases are alerted in such a compassionate manner,” she said.
Both Palermo and Alexenko point out that one of the “big picture” problems in rape cases is the fact that many times victims feel stigmatized or ashamed when they report the crime.
“According to the US Department of Justice, sexual assault is one of the most under reported crimes, with 60% still being left unreported. Rape is one of the only crimes in which often the victim is also ‘put on trial,’” Alexenko said.
Knowing that most assailants are repeat offenders, it follows that rape cases that remain unprosecuted, be it due to the backlog, resistance of victims or a combination of both, allow for the existence of completely avoidable crimes.
Palermo’s research for Natasha’s Justice Project is estimated to take at least a year before yielding conclusive results. Resolving the backlog entirely will likely take much longer and will entail more than just getting the unanalyzed SAKs processed.
“The most important thing we can do, as a society, is to educate ourselves about sexual assault and abuse,” said Alexenko.
For more information on the project, or for information on how to help, vistit www.natashasjusticeproject.org
Latest posts by Marcela Maxfield (see all)
- Review of Squirm Burbee: A Vaudevillian Melodrama - November 15, 2011
- Letter on Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Concerns - November 14, 2011
- Stony Brook’s Friedburg on $600,000 Grant for Studies in Chronic Fatigue Syndrome - October 31, 2011