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Researchers Tackle Rape Kit Backlog, Gain Insights

Sexual assault evidence kits (SAEKs or SAKs), better known as rape kits, have been piling up, untested, in police departments and crime lab storage facilities by the hundreds of thousands.

The Joyful Heart Foundation’s EndTheBacklog.org points out that rape kit backlogs occur both in police department evidence storage while waiting for a detective or prosecutor to request DNA evidence, and in crime laboratory facilities waiting indefinitely for DNA analysis.

The Mandel School’s Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University has teamed up with Ohio’s Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office (CCPO) to study the backlogged SAKs in an effort to derive insight that could help improve the process of moving sexual assault forensic exams through to a final disposition.

In addition to analyzing backlogged SAKs in Cuyahoga County, the Mandel School is also participating in a historic Department of Justice (DOJ) National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI). Research has already revealed a wealth of information and is expected to help to put criminals behind bars for crimes ranging back 20 years or more.

The Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force

In 2009, the Cleveland, Ohio Police Department (CPD) discovered the remains of 11 women in serial killer Anthony Sowell’s home, according to The Mandel School’s Rachel Lovell, PhD, Fred Butcher, PhD, and Daniel Flannery, PhD. An investigation revealed that CPD’s failure to follow up on sexual assault reports years earlier might have resulted in earlier intervention in Sowell’s activities that could have prevented the killings.

In 2013, the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force was formed to investigate and prosecute the backlog of unsubmitted, untested SAKs in the Cleveland area. The prosecutor’s office reports that nearly 5,000 SAKs collected between 1993 and 2010 are being re-examined.

The DOJ gave $3 million in grants to the CCPO to fund the task force. $2 million of the grant money ($850,000 of which went to Case Western Reserve’s Mandel School) paid for testing and research of backlogged rape kits, leading to more than 500 indictments so far and more than 200 convictions, a third of which were serial rapists. The remaining $1 million was used to conduct a census of felons whose DNA had not yet been collected for the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

Analysts on the task force compared the laboratory costs of testing SAKs to the costs of not testing the kits and seeking criminal convictions. While testing a single rape kit costs nearly $1,000, victims of sexual assault can incur more than $200,000 in pain and suffering, medical expenditures, and other associated costs.

The task force is also investigating incidents of rape that pre-date Ohio’s statute of limitations. While these crimes cannot be prosecuted, the investigations will be able to aggregate information from the victims and non-forensic data associated with old case files. Analysis of all rape cases can help to better profile rapists and potentially catch them at an earlier stage than ever before.

Begun Center’s Role In The Sexual Assault Kit Task Force

The CCPO gave Flannery and Lovell access to SAK case files in 2014. Within a year, all of the nearly 5,000 untested rape kits were submitted for testing. The first obvious challenge for researchers at the Mandel School was to help streamline the process of handling SAKs by breaking it into four stages: testing, investigation, prosecution, and disposition.

Several briefs were prepared by the Begun Center’s research team, as chronicled in the team’s the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Report. These briefs included an explanation of data and methodology, a victim’s brief, a comparison of single versus serial sexual offenders, patterns of sexual offenses, and the cost savings analysis.

The results of SAK research reveal information that will likely prove to be invaluable to Cuyahoga County law enforcement in the years to come. Among the most important Begun Center discoveries itemized in Case Western Reserve’s “Research Reveals New Insights Into Rapist Behavior, Assists Rape Investigations And Prosecutions” are:

  • Rapists’ criminal histories typically begin long before their first documented sexual assault, and rapists usually exhibit other types of criminal behavior in addition to rape.
  • Serial rapists kidnap victims and threaten them verbally and physically more frequently than one-time offenders. However, one-time offenders are more likely to injure or restrain their victims than serial rapists.
  • Victims, more often than not, fully cooperate with police investigators initially, but almost 70 percent of them failed to respond to investigators’ further attempts to contact them.

 
These findings will not only help law enforcement officials to investigate rapes more efficiently and effectively, they also provide social workers with a better understanding of both sexual assault crimes and the victims of those crimes. Additionally, social workers armed with this knowledge may be able to spot future rapists in their formative stages, before any crime takes place. Early identification can enable timely interventions aimed at helping those who are at high risk of perpetrating sexual assaults.

The work being done by the Mandel School’s Begun Center in cooperation with the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force has helped to pave the way for further Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grants for other cities. To date, according to SAKI’s website, 32 jurisdictions have been funded, nearly 27,000 kits have been inventoried, and nearly 9,000 have been sent for testing.

SAKI explains, “Funding will not only help link victims to advocates and needed services, but also help jurisdictions implement best practices and comprehensive reform to help bring perpetrators to justice and increase safety in communities by preventing future sexual assaults.”

About Case Western Reserve University’s Online MSSA Program

Case Western Reserve University’s Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences is ranked among the top ten social work graduate schools by U.S. News & World Report and offers a master’s of social work program online.

The Mandel School’s Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education studies violent crimes such as sexual assault, contributing to students’ understanding of the issues and ways to deal with them after they graduate and begin their careers as social workers.

Online Master of Science in Social Administration (MSSA, equivalent to a MSW degree) coursework blends seamlessly with hands-on field experience in three concentrations: Community Practice for Social Change, Direct Practice (Children, Youth, and Families), and Direct Practice (Mental Health with Adults).

Sources:

What Is The Rape Kit Backlog?

Analysis Of Cuyahoga County’s Procedures For Alleviating The Backlog Of Sexual Assault Kits

What Is The Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force

Rape Kit Research At Begun Center To Expand With $858K From U.S. Department Of Justice

Testing Backlogged Sexual Assault Kits Prevents Future Rapes And Saves Victims And Communities Millions

Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Report

Research Reveals New Insights Into Rapist Behavior, Assists Rape Investigations And Prosecutions

SAKI Is Enhancing The Criminal Justice Response To Sexual Assault And Ensuring Justice For Victims