Launching the first statewide rape kit tracking system
The Idaho Sexual Assault Kit Initiative focused on developing a model statewide policy for testing sexual assault kits
This article is reprinted with permission from the Joyful Heart Foundation.
By Matthew Gamette
In 2014, Idaho began a new journey in handling sexual assault kits (SAKs). I had heard the stories about backlogged SAKs coming out of Detroit, Los Angeles and Houston. Because of my role in the Consortium of Forensic Science Organizations, a national advocacy group, I knew legislation was on the horizon. Therefore, I initiated a statewide effort for an informal survey of kits at law enforcement agencies in our state.
However, law enforcement felt a kit survey was too time-intensive and difficult, and Idaho State Police (ISP) had no oversight authority to require other state agencies to require a response. Despite our best efforts for several months, the response rate for the first voluntary survey was very low, so the data we obtained was not representative of how SAKs were being handled statewide.
At the same time, I put together a policy advisory group with state and local law enforcement, the forensic DNA laboratory personnel, a prosecutor, a public defender, a court representative, several victim advocacy and resource groups, victim compensation fund administrators, sexual assault nurse examiners (SANEs), a physician and hospital administrators. In the years since we started meeting, we have added a legislator, researchers, college campus representatives, SART administrators and more law enforcement professionals, representing agencies of all types and sizes in Idaho. This group is now called the Idaho Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (ISAKI). ISAKI is not legislatively mandated; it is a group of committed people voluntarily working together to make the system better.
ISAKI started out focused on developing a model statewide policy for testing SAKs, working collaboratively through open – and sometimes brutally honest – dialogue.
The model policy we created requested that all SAKs be submitted to the state lab, except in cases where an adult victim did not want the kit tested or where law enforcement determined “no crime was committed.” We shared the policy with all law enforcement entities, requesting voluntary compliance. Then, we shifted our focus to law enforcement training and developing a statewide sexual assault evidence kit collection protocol.
In September 2015, the landscape around sexual assault kits in Idaho changed significantly. A local reporter filed a public records request with Idaho State Police and several local law enforcement entities about the number of untested SAKs in the state. After several articles critical of local law enforcement’s handling of SAKs were published, all of us at ISAKI knew we had to make broader changes.
The next month, Idaho State Representative Melissa Wintrow toured the state forensic laboratory. She asked to be included in the next ISAKI meeting and adding her to the group had an immediate impact. We discussed and advocated for our model policy to become a state law, requiring the testing of most SAKs and a meaningful statewide survey of kits. ISAKI worked tirelessly to provide input on and support for the bill.
In 2016, H.B. 528 passed unanimously in the Idaho legislature. The new law gave ISP oversight authority for a statewide survey, required most kits to be sent to the ISP lab within 30 days of collection, and required ISP to establish and run a tracking system.
ISP immediately sent a new survey to law enforcement to learn how many kits were sitting on their shelves – both untested kits and those that had been tested – along with the agency case number. It took about five months and many emails and phone calls to achieve complete compliance from every law enforcement agency in the state. The survey data is currently available on the ISP website.
In 2016, ISP researched SAK tracking systems available commercially and a state system used in California. We decided to ask our talented in-house web developers at ISP to develop a SAK tracking system with simple user interfaces and workflows. ISP lab administrators began working with our developers on the Idaho Sexual Assault Kit Tracking System (IKTS). The early versions were vetted through the ISAKI group, especially the victim advocacy groups. We made it a priority to get the victim-access-to-information component right.
IKTS took four programmers approximately four months to complete the tracking system. In January 2017, IKTS became the first fully implemented statewide SAK tracking system in the country. ISP is willing to share this software with any public agency at no cost, and the software has already been shared with several states.
At the time of the forensic exam, medical providers give the victim a kit number following the medical forensic exam which can be entered into IKTS to check the status of the kit. Because ISP and ISAKI decided to make all the information in the system public, identifying information, such as the victim’s name and date of birth is not available anywhere in the system. Even if others obtain the kit number, there is no way to connect a kit to a victim.
There is almost no cost for us to maintain the system because IKTS is hosted on an ISP server. The Idaho legislature provided funding for a full-time kit tracking administrator who continuously trains people to use the system, follows up on problems, and ensures compliance. She was also very valuable in compiling our first annual report to the Idaho legislature in January 2017.
The legislature also provided annual funds for ISP to start purchasing all SAKs for the state and distribute them to medical facilities for use. By serializing each kit and entering them into IKTS before distribution to medical facilities, IKTS can track a kit from purchasing by ISP, to the medical collection site, to the law enforcement agency, to the forensic lab, and back to the law enforcement agency for long-term storage. This tracking mechanism allows ISP to standardize kits provided statewide, save money in purchasing, control statewide inventory (and monitor waste), and account for every single kit entering the system in Idaho.
Early in 2017, ISAKI recommended, and Rep. Wintrow championed, H.B. 146. which provides law enforcement with necessary direction for how long rape kits must be retained in Idaho. The law is retroactive, and we are working with local law enforcement to ensure that every kit in Idaho has a defined retention period in the IKTS system.
In the first year of IKTS, the ISP lab saw an increase of 107% in DNA cases because both new and backlogged SAKs were being sent in. To help with this increased workload, the legislature funded two new DNA analyst positions for the lab. The FBI laboratory also helped process backlogged kits through the NIJ-FBI Sexual Assault Kit Partnership, and we are thankful for their help. H.B. 146 also required a 90-day testing window for the lab, allowing stakeholders, including the legislature, to continue evaluating whether the lab has the resources needed to process kits in 90 days. It is critical that funding entities regularly evaluate the needs and resources of state labs to identify and address gaps.
There have been struggles and lessons learned from training and early use by medical staff, law enforcement and prosecutors. However, IKTS and our new approach to handling SAKs provides more public accountability and transparency, allows victims to see the state taking this issue seriously, provides better direction and tools to law enforcement, provides more resources to the state forensic laboratory, and ultimately provides a better criminal justice system. Idaho will address issues of payments for medical forensic exams, work on a statewide standard protocol for SAK collection, and increase sexual assault training for law enforcement.
In Idaho, we took the initiative to reform how rape kits are handled despite the challenges. We collectively can choose to do nothing because of how difficult finding a solution may be, or we can choose to take steps within our sphere of influence to make a difference. I urge you to choose an idea for a solution and see what difference we can all make together!
About the author
Matthew Gamette is the laboratory system director at the Idaho State Police Forensic Services. Since 2014, Idaho has worked to reform rape kit handling.