Millions in state, federal funds available to help Md. police test rape kits

The funding comes along with new state laws requiring police to promptly submit kits for testing to avoid a backlog

Alison Knezevich
Baltimore Sun

BALTIMORE — Millions of dollars are set to help police around Maryland process rape kits that have sat untested in storage and keep pace with new cases.

The funds include $3.5 million that is part of a new state fund for testing, plus a portion of a $2.6 million federal grant that also will help track kits and support survivors. And Baltimore County recently received a private $300,000 grant from a local foundation to help sex-crimes detectives investigate decades-old cold cases.

At last count in 2018, 10 of Maryland’s largest police departments reported more than 6,500 untested kits, according to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office. An updated statewide inventory is expected soon.

“In my opinion, testing rape kits — whether it’s here in Baltimore or in Cleveland or in Detroit — has not been a priority,” said Del. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat who has pushed for statewide reforms. But “I have seen, in my short five years in elected office, a substantial shift in thinking about how the kits should be handled — and I would say that’s for the good.”

The funding comes as Maryland puts into place new rules for how police handle samples taken from sexual assault victims, often called rape kits. Starting Jan. 1, state law will require police to promptly submit most rape kits for forensic testing unless the victim doesn’t want that.

Investigations by The Baltimore Sun have found that hundreds of rape kits have been destroyed by police departments rather than stored, even though it is not uncommon for victims to change their minds about pressing charges. A 2017 law now requires police to retain kits for 20 years.

A rape kit contains evidence, such as samples of blood and semen, collected during a medical examination that can last more than four hours. After a crime lab processes the samples, the DNA profile can be submitted to a national FBI database to compare it with others. So testing a rape kit sometimes can lead to a suspect wanted in connection with another assault.

It typically costs an average of $1,000 to $1,500 to process one rape kit. In many cases in Maryland, police have chosen not to submit kits for testing.

Advocates say the number of untested kits are a manifestation of larger shortcomings in investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults, from not believing victims to failing to follow up on leads.

"It’s like a symptom of an illness, that rape and sexual assault are issues that aren’t taken seriously in a variety of ways — by all kinds of industries, all kinds of people, including law enforcement,” said Brittany Oliver, founder of the Baltimore-area advocacy organization Not Without Black Women.

Maryland was awarded a $2.6 million grant last year from the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Initiative, a national effort that has inventoried more than 87,000 kits and sent more than 54,000 for testing.

About a third of the grant will help test roughly 900 kits that were collected before April 2018. Other money is set aside to develop a tracking system and hire victim advocates.

“We do not believe the federal funding will even come close to testing all the old kits, but we’re hopeful that we will be able to begin the process,” said Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The testing funds will be distributed in the coming year, said Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office, which staffs a statewide oversight committee for rape kit policy and funding.

In addition, Maryland lawmakers this year established an annual fund of $3.5 million to help prevent a backlog going forward.

The state money to test rape kits was among $245 million set aside by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly that was held up by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in a dispute over state spending. Hogan later allocated the $3.5 million for testing from the existing budget of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which is administering the program.

Applications from police departments were due Nov. 18. State officials said six agencies applied, but wouldn’t say which ones. They could not yet provide an estimate of the number of rape kits that could be tested using the money.

Advocates are hopeful the efforts will help close cases. Across the country, “old kits are ending up in arrests and prosecutions of these offenders who have been escaping justice for decades," said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national nonprofit that advocates for counting and testing all kits.

At the same time, the prospect of reopening old investigations may dig up painful memories for victims who believed their case was closed. Advocates are working to help police agencies establish protocols for how to approach victims in cold cases.

“It’s vital that we reach out to survivors and let them know the status of their rape kit, seek their consent and advice … and make sure they’re as involved as they want to be,” Jordan said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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