Backlogged: the Dark Reality of Rape Kit Testing

Everyone walks the path to healing from a traumatic event a little differently. For some of us, justice is a non-negotiable and we will chart a relentless path to whatever justice we might salvage from the pain. There may be hurt and loss along the way, but as long as order is restored, all is worth it. For some of us, we need someone to just be there for us, to hold us away from the hurt and darkness and remind us that our lives are bigger than it. For some, we need to be someone new. Change our look and attitude and convince ourselves that we are far from the hurt because we’re not even the same person. That it wouldn’t happen to the person we are now.

Those who have experienced sexual assault often don’t get to choose how they cope with the trauma. And pursuing justice is incredibly rarely an available option. The hope is that those who can serve justice are working on their behalf to make sure that if justice can be done for them and for potential future victims, it will be. But even going through the tremendous strain of getting a rape kit doesn’t necessarily bring justice any closer. Unfortunately, rape kits are a historically low priority on the law enforcement side of things. Thousands upon thousands of rape kits have gotten backlogged as life moved on and that moment engrained in one person’s mind fell by the wayside. Even as the odds of finding a DNA match have increased exponentially over the last 5 decades, the backlogs have continued to build.

Recognizing a critical need, several nationwide advocate initiatives have set up to fight the backlog, urging law enforcement to make kit testing a priority. Even there is no initial DNA hit, the record will continue to update with every new arrest and entry of another set of DNA in the database until the search finds a match. Getting the DNA from these kits also increases the odds of finding internal hits (DNA matches between several rape kits) are high and can create breadcrumb trails that lead to getting serial offenders off the streets. Earlier this year, Kym Worthy used a test case in Detroit to illustrate just how much of a negligence it is to leave the best evidence we have in these cases, untouched. And right here in Portland, testing an old rape kit uncovered a 22 year old crime that would have gone secret and hidden from history, locked in an evidence chamber, without the work of backlog activists. These nudges to law enforcement have led to positive changes in practice through the Rose Project, a Portland Police Bureau-led initiative to get old rape kits processed and in police databases.

It’s difficult to know how to even approach the issue of sexual assault. As a society, we don’t have the answer on how to make it right or how to keep it from happening in the future. But what we can do is do everything in our power to make justice a possibility for those we love and those we don't know yet. Start here. Get to know as much as you can about the problem. When you're ready to take action, go here and join the conversation. Look at the amazing work that's been done to address the problem locally and donate to continue the work here or start the work in states like Kym's. People you know, people you love are out there without a way to find justice - let's change that.