Why Do Thousands of Rape Kits Go Untested Each Year?

Victims of sexual assault are often told that in order to get justice, they’ll need to get a rape kit. This means that within hours of the worst experience of their lives, victims have to allow a stranger to not just to see their naked bodies but also to photograph and examine them, both internally and externally, in search of evidence and, hopefully, DNA.

It’s reasonable that victims would expect that after everything they’ve gone through to have evidence collected into a rape kit, that kit would then go to a lab and be tested. Instead, it likely sits on a shelf, sometimes for decades, because of the rape kit backlog.

The rape kit backlog first came to light in the 1990s and 2000s, when people started to realize there were thousands of untested rape kits just sitting in evidence warehouses.

The exact number of untested kits is still unknown because there aren’t uniform regulations on testing kits, but estimates suggest 400,000 rape kits are sitting untested. Each one of them is a victim waiting for justice and a rapist walking free.

The numbers in individual cities are staggering. In New York City, the backlog reached 17,000. In Houston, 6,000 kits went untested. In Detroit, there were more than 11,000 kits. Some of these kits have been gathering dust for over two decades.

In Utah, authorities destroyed over 200 rape kits to reduce their own backlog. And North Carolina police destroyed more than 1000.

When Detroit finally started testing their backlogged rape kits, the results revealed 817 serial rapists, meaning there are likely 29,000 serial rapists across the country who haven’t been caught because of the rape kit backlog.

How did this problem get so out of control? One reason is that technology is much more advanced now than when some of the kits were first collected. In the case of some older kits, it may be that detectives couldn’t gather meaningful evidence with the technology available at the time, but they may be able to now.

“Ten or 15 years ago the DNA technology wasn’t in the same place it is today” Becca O’Connor, vice president for public policy at the Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), told NPR, ”We now are able to pull much more out of a rape kit through DNA testing than we have been able to in the past.”

Another reason is our attitudes toward rape. Unfortunately, we still live in a culture that excuses rape, but a few decades ago the laws and perceptions regarding sexual assault were even worse.

The mentality surrounding rape made rape kits easy to ignore, especially since there were no federal regulations for testing them. Not only could states or jurisdictions make up their own guidelines, individual detectives could decide what to do with a kit.

Racism is another problem.

“Eighty-six percent of our victims in these untested kits are people of color. You’re not going to find too many blond-haired, blue eyed white women,” Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy told the Detroit Free Press, “Because their kits are treated differently, their cases are solved.”

Now, because of a combination of these factors, many jurisdictions simply don’t have the resources to wade through all their untested kits, so they continue to sit on a shelf. Each kit can cost $400 to $1,200 to test, which can add up to a huge expense for cities, like Detroit, with thousands of kits left to test.

Laws regarding the testing and tracking of rape kits are changing across the country and federal grants have been allocated to alleviate the financial burden of testing. Still, that’s little comfort to the hundreds of thousands of victims waiting for justice.

Take Action

In 2015, 15-year-old Alexis S. was raped in Alabama. Her rape kit is still untested. Tell the state of Alabama that this is inexcusable, and sign her Care2 petition demanding that state law enforcement test all rape kits.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

104 comments

joan silaco
joan silaco2 months ago

Thank Mariska Hargitay and VP Joe Biden for bringing it to the attention and in the forefront.

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Karen H
Karen H3 months ago

My misrepresentative, Marco Rubio, says, "No abortion, even in the case of incest or rape", yet I don't see him doing anything to stop the rape culture. Processing rape kits would be a start. We need to pressure our misrepresentatives.

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Leo Custer
Leo C3 months ago

Thank you for sharing!

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Amanda M
Amanda M3 months ago

Thanks for Sharing

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Amanda M
Amanda M3 months ago

Thanks for Sharing

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Tania N
Tania N3 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Tania N
Tania N3 months ago

Thanks for sharing

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Richard A
Richard Anonymous3 months ago

I am sure that a lot of people would agree on their tax forms to make a donation to the cause of solving this backlog if the option were provided.

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Lesa D
Lesa D3 months ago

#IAmEvidence @HBODocs

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Lesa D
Lesa D3 months ago

#96803 petition signed...

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