Last week, we were able to sit down for a conversation with State Senator Denise Harper Angel and Michelle Kuiper, two extraordinary leaders in the rape kit reform effort in Kentucky. Sen. Harper Angel has championed legislative reform in Kentucky, sponsoring both a 2015 joint resolution to audit untested kits and the 2016 SAFE Act, which enacted broader reform. Michelle Kuiper has been an outspoken advocate on behalf of survivors of sexual assault in Kentucky and nationwide.
How did the two of you meet? How did you become involved in reform?
Senator Denise Harper Angel: I became aware of the backlog at the National Council of State Legislators Conference. When I returned home, I researched what Kentucky was doing, and found nothing. We had no guidelines, no regulations—none at all. In 2015, I filed a joint resolution to require a count of untested rape kits in KY, because we had no idea. When I filed the resolution, Michelle and her husband were in the audience. We’ve been great friends ever since. Michelle is a wonderful advocate. She just pours her heart out to anyone in need of assistance in any way.
Michelle Kuiper: When I met her, I saw her dedication to this issue: “This is an abomination. One kit is too many. These are SAFE (Sexual Assault Forensic Exam) kits—each one is a boxed up crime scene. Each one deserves to be tested. Let’s find out how many kits we have, and move forward.” From the first time my husband and I met her, we could see the passion and determination she had to get results.
Who were the other stakeholders and allies you had to convene to achieve this reform?
Sen. Harper Angel: Following the Joint Resolution, we held several meetings with the Kentucky State Police Forensic Crime Lab, the Commonwealth Attorney’s Offices, Sheriff’s Offices, various law enforcement agencies, and the Criminal Justice Training Department. They were incredibly important to have on board.
The Auditor’s Office also stepped up, which was perfect. Not only did our auditor champion the bill, but, while we were meeting with the groups I mentioned, he was travelling across the Commonwealth holding stakeholder’s meetings with rape crisis centers, advocates, and others, to get the word out about the audit, but also to collect input on next steps. He got so much input from people that, at the end of his trip, he put together 21 recommendations that became the platform for the SAFE Act, the major reform we passed last year. The auditor was amazing in how he took on this project, and we reaped the rewards of his work in the final bill.
Did you encounter any opposition or obstacles as you pushed for reform?
Sen. Harper Angel: My original obstacle was finding funding, of course. After the audit, we received a $1.9 million grant from the federal government to start testing. And the Governor set aside $4.5 million in settlement funds from a pharmaceutical lawsuit to fund the reforms of the SAFE Act.
Since we passed the SAFE Act, we’ve tested half the backlog. The crime lab has hired 11 new forensic pathologists, and is leasing new office space. It would normally take 8 months to a year to train these new folks, but the lab has been able to contract outside for training, which, of course, allows the other staff to continue their regular duties. We’ve got an incentive for SANE nurses at six hospitals, and all but one of our 410 law enforcement agencies have submitted their kits. The $4.5 million has been outstanding in getting us off the ground with this whole project.
As far as opposition, we really didn’t have any. Legislators were aghast that this issue even existed. After the audit, when we found 3,090 kits, everybody was on board. It was such a great, bipartisan effort. The Chairman of Judiciary, who is of my opposite party, worked with me to make a great bill even better. Folks now speak of this bill as one of the greatest things we’ve done in years.
Michelle Kuiper: When the auditor was touring the state, he and his staff were getting all of these reports of, “Well, we were told not to send in the kit.” And they just wondered, Why would anyone be told not to send in a kit? In Kentucky, the way the lab policy was, if you had no known offender, you didn’t submit the kit.1 I remember us all sitting in the office when we found out, thinking, Oh my gosh. We were all stunned. We started to understand that this was a training issue.2
When I went into these stakeholder meetings—I drove around Kentucky and spoke at a lot of them—sometimes I would hear this open, candid conversation that was very much needed. When you had these law enforcement officers, SANE nurses, and advocates coming out in droves to say, “This is why it happened, and this is what happens in our jurisdiction,” that was commendable. They could have all just stayed silent and hid the problems, but they didn’t. They came out to be open and work together to fix the problem.
We weren’t pointing fingers at the past, which was key to getting people to feel free to be open.
Why was incorporating a reporting mechanism important for the SAFE Act?
Sen. Harper Angel: We linked all of the timelines for submission and testing to the funding. And the only way to know whether they’re meeting those timelines is to have the reporting. I thought that was very important to put in the legislation.
The lab is working to get down to 60 days by 2020, and the folks at the lab are telling me that they may be able to do better than that even sooner. The fact that nobody was looking at the procedures, or lack of procedures, for 20 years, requires keeping eyes on it. I think that reporting is an important part of the bill, and by tying it to the funding, we can expect compliance.
Did anything surprise you about the path to reform?
Sen. Harper Angel: [The SAFE Act] was the greatest legislation I’ll probably ever pass, but it was the easiest one. Once people understood what was happening, they wanted to fix the problem and prevent it from happening again.
Michelle Kuiper: One of the biggest things for me—and I’ll never forget it—happened at one of the stakeholder meetings. At a few of these meetings, the auditor had heard hospital staff say that, when they couldn’t serve a survivor, they’d send them over to the next county. At this meeting, when someone said they hadn’t had a victim report a sexual assault in two years, the auditor asked whether anyone had ever heard of someone being turned away from the hospital. A SANE nurse spoke up, and explained that she had seen it happen multiple times. One night, there was only one SANE-trained nurse available, and there were too many other emergencies, so they sent the survivor away to the next county. The auditor asked, “Well, how far away is that county?” and the nurse said, “45 minutes away.” And I teared up and said, "She was the emergency. Just because it wasn't a gunshot wound doesn't mean she was any less of an emergency. She was there to help with the collection of evidence of a crime." If anything, what this legislation and the process has done is spread awareness and education. What we’ve done is change the culture.
What advice would you give others looking to get involved in reform?
Sen. Harper Angel: The very first thing, which was so important and got us on the right track, was finding out the numbers. That audit is so important. Bringing stakeholders to the table early, getting behind the fact that the audit is needed, and then facing those glaring numbers to move forward. I would encourage anybody that doesn’t know what’s going on in their state with untested rape kits to perform an audit. And then federal funds are available, the awareness becomes the focus, and you can move to step two, which is major reform. That is what we accomplished in Kentucky.
Now, we just watch the results. We have an annual accountability report now, and all of the kits had to be in by January 1, 2017. There’s going to be a full report coming in a few weeks. The public is going to have eyes all over it. Everyone is going to want to do more and continue to watch it to make sure that it continues to be funded, so we can keep doing the right thing for victims of sexual assault.
Michelle Kuiper: I think, from a survivor standpoint, I was very lucky to have legislators like [Sen. Harper Angel] and Sen. Whitney Westerfied, who co-sponsored, to have someone in your corner that says, “I believe you. We don’t want to see this happen again. What can we do to help?” To feel validated. The fact that there was someone like [the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, or KASAP], people that were able to say, “We want to correct this problem. If you’d like to help us, we would really love that.” I had support from KASAP, law enforcement, the state lab, advocates, and legislators; everyone was working together to make it right and make sure all of the untested and unsubmitted kits were tested.
This effort has encouraged people to talk about it, sit at tables together, and, in a bipartisan way, solve the problem as best they can. It has created a space for everyone to come together and say, “We can do better.”
-Conversation with Sen. Denise Harper Angel and Michelle Kuiper, January 17, 2017
1To expedite comparison and DNA matching, Kentucky lab policy required that, for known offender cases, the police submit an offender sample for analysis alongside the rape kit. Many law enforcement agencies interpreted this policy to also prohibit the submission of kits from cases with unknown offenders, since they would not be able to provide a suspect sample in those cases. This lab policy has since changed.
2Testing all kits—kits in cases with both known and unknown offenders—is critical to solve and prevent crime. Many perpetrators are serial offenders, and they commit all types of crime. In Detroit, testing backlogged kits has linked over 775 suspected serial offenders to crimes across 40 states and Washington, D.C.
END THE BACKLOG is an initiative of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.