Washington state must do more to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits.
She arrived at Swedish Medical Center in Ballard in spring 2014. She was bleeding and disoriented. She had just been raped. She was told, “Sorry, we don’t do rape kits here. Only Harborview does that.” Haborview Medical Center was 6.5 miles away.
After making it to Harborview, she was subjected to a six-hour procedure known as a sexual assault forensic examination. During this process, her bruised body was poked and prodded as medical examiners collected DNA evidence for a sexual assault kit, also known as a rape kit.
Frustration mounted as she was told that in her trek from Ballard to First Hill some of the evidence – her body – had been contaminated.
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After all this she assumed her kit was tested because a police investigation had opened. She assumed wrong. It remained in an evidence locker collecting dust – just a small white box with her name on a shelf.
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Her story isn’t unique. Her story signifies the silent epidemic occurring across our state and nation. Her experience is a roaring signal that Washington’s criminal justice system has continually and systemically failed nearly 8,000 sexual assault survivors for too long.
Three years ago, with bipartisan support, the state Legislature began to address this crisis. Yet, we remain behind other states in supporting victims and survivors and preventing serial offenders from striking again.
In the summer of 2017, a Tumwater woman was held at knife point. She was taken into the woods and raped. Six months later, her kit was tested. Three days before police took her attacker into custody in January 2018, another woman had come forward. He raped her, too – just one day after DNA results came back.
Despite the tragedy, hope remains. We have seen promising developments in our state and nation.
In 2014, Ohio mandated law enforcement to test every single backlogged kit. In 2017, 13,931 kits were counted. By February 2018, labs cleared them all – the first in the nation. Today, newly submitted kits are tested within 30 days.
In October 2018, Oregon cleared its backlog of more than 5,000 rape kits. Four convictions have already resulted from processed DNA.
And last year, the testing of the backlog led to the prosecution of a 10-year-old cold case in which a Seattle teenager was raped. The offender had an extensive criminal history, including gaining notoriety as the Beacon Hill Groper.
Today, we have an opportunity to rapidly test older kits and the newer backlog, bringing justice to survivors and preventing further trauma. Along with the State Attorney General’s Office, the Legislature once again has a bill that makes concrete institutional reforms that would end Washington’s backlog by December 2020.
House Bill 1166 additionally mandates testing of new kits within 45 days. The state would invest in badly needed technological laboratory updates, ensuring testing demands are met.
Equally vital, this legislation lays out a bill of rights for every survivor. Survivors would no longer bear the financial burden of paying for their own rape kit. They would be able to consult with a sexual assault advocate, be notified of test results and be able to review their police statements. Law enforcement would be trained in specialized trauma-informed approaches to better support survivors.
So that no survivor fears reporting their assault. So that no survivor jumps from hospital to hospital to access a rape kit. So that more people do not become victims while DNA sits untouched in evidence lockers.
Olympia can send a message that Washington is committed to delivering the justice that sexual assault survivors deserve. We must end the backlog now.