New legislation will reduce backlogs, and advocates say it's step in the right direction
By BLAISE MESA
Kansas News Service
TOPEKA — In the mid-2010s, Kansas left as many as 2,200 rape kits languishing after they’d been used to document possible sexual assaults. That slowed prosecutions and undercut a valuable law enforcement tool for identifying serial rapists.
Now state lawmakers look ready to pass a law demanding that those evidence packs head to labs for testing quickly. And, thanks partly to a federal $2 million grant Kansas landed in 2015, a bottleneck that overwhelmed the state’s ability to process the kits has been cleared away.
The Kansas Bureau of Investigations wasn’t available for an interview, but it told lawmakers in 2021 that the most common reason kits weren’t tested in the last decade was because the agency didn’t have the capacity to test kits.
Sandy Horton, executive director with the Kansas Sheriff’s Association, said it used to take months or years for results. That is not the case anymore.
“I don’t hear or see that there’s an issue with getting test results now from these kits,” he said.
Victoria Pickering, director of advocacy at the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, said the bill will prevent backlogs because tests can’t sit on the self anymore. It is recommended that tests be sent to the lab, she said, “but that’s not a guarantee right now.”
“It's important for survivors to know for sure when they make a decision about allowing their body to be treated as a crime scene,” she said, “that that evidence will be looked at, will be evaluated and will be taken seriously.”
Joyce Grover, executive director of the Kansas Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence — a group that worked on the Sexual Assault Kit initiative — said that the program went far in reducing delays.
The group worked to educate officers and the public about sexual assault. Grover said kits used to go unsubmitted because the person requesting a rape kit would be drunk and officers would think they didn’t have a case.
“(They’d think), ‘Oh, she was drinking, so we’re not going to be able to take this anywhere, let’s just put this kit on the shelf,’” she said. “Not testing these kits is a way that they play into the hands of the perpetrator.”
Grover said society is becoming more educated on sexual assault.
Her organization also established working groups of industry professionals who are still examining the issues to prevent future backlogs, and it helped create a database that links offenders to other crimes through their DNA.
“It leads to some other kinds of criminal accountability,” Grover said.
The bill unanimously passed the Kansas House last year and has a hearing in the Senate judiciary committee on Thursday.
Pickering said there is still more work to improve the state’s response to sexual assault, but this is an important step.
“This is a strong message that we send as a state to tell survivors that what happened to them mattered and that at the bare minimum we are going to evaluate the evidence in their case,” she said. “It’s really not only practical, but it’s also symbolic.”
The Kansas Crisis Hotline is 1-888-363-2287. It is a toll-free line available 24-hours a day for anyone needing help. The Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault can be reached at 816-531-0233 or 913-642-0233.
Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at [email protected].