Stepping up to end rape kit backlog

The federal government estimates that hundreds of thousands of rape kits are sitting on shelves across the country–untested. As a result, the opportunity to obtain justice for thousands of women is lost. Finally, people in positions of power seem to be listening to those victims shouting for justice; one of those people is Wayne County, Michigan prosecutor Kym Worthy.

In 2009, she learned that thousands of untested rape kits were sitting in a police storage facility. Some of them were decades old. Eventually, she found 11,303 untested kits: “To know that we had all of these potential victims sitting out there, all of them, mostly women, and nothing had been done, was just truly appalling” (NBC News). Worthy began an effort that has taken fellow prosecutors hundreds of volunteer hours to go through every box in an effort to match each kit with a victim through the use of an old handwritten police log: “We were literally blowing off dust and dirt off of those books so we can open them up and see if we can find any information in these books that would match the rape kit” (NBC News).

Worthy has taken up this cause in part because she was a victim of a sexual assault, which is not surprising when you look at the statistics. A sexual assault occurs every two minutes in the United States. Rape occurs every eight minutes, and 56 women are victimized by an intimate partner every hour (National Crime Victimization Survey). When a woman is sexually assaulted, her body becomes part of the crime scene. If she seeks medical treatment immediately following an assault, she can request that DNA evidence be collected. This is done through the use of a sexual assault evidence kit, more commonly known as a rape kit. If the woman reports the assault to police, the kit is taken into evidence. However, not all kits are tested.

In some larger US cities, including New York and Los Angeles, laws are in place requiring that every kit taken into evidence is tested. However, most jurisdictions do not have those requirements. In Colorado, a recent investigation brought to light the fact that thousands of rape kits remain untested. In many of these cases, kits were not tested if the perpetrator was known to the victim. According to Fort Collins Police Captain Don Vagge, “If the issue is consent, finding DNA is not going to help” (7News). While Vagge seems to be under the impression that DNA collected from date rape and domestic violence cases cannot be entered into CODIS, the national DNA database, Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) spokesperson Susan Medina stated that any rape kit that is sent to CBI is tested, and the suspect’s DNA is entered into the CODIS database: “That person could be connected to other cases” (7News). The bottom line here is that potential repeat offenders are not being identified, and victims are once again being denied any form of justice.

After the lack of testing was exposed in Colorado, some changes in policy were made, but it remains unclear how many untested kits will now be tested. In Michigan, Prosecutor Worthy’s team is making progress, but it is slow going. 600 kits have now been tested, leading to evidence of 21 serial rapists. However, the cost of testing all of the kits is prohibitive. The cost to test each kit is between $1200 and $1500, which at this point is coming from donations made to a non-profit organization set up specifically for this purpose (NBC News).

When rape kits remain untested, victims are re-victimized and perpetrators walk free–possibly to rape again. To learn what you can do to help move rape kit testing forward, visit

Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

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