Inside Kentucky’s statewide audit of untested rape kits

Today, we have a guest blog from Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen. After Kentucky's legislature passed a new law mandating a statewide audit of untested rape kits, Auditor Edelen’s office was assigned to lead the charge and discovered over 3,000 kits. In an #ENDTHEBACKLOG exclusive, Auditor Edelen shares his insights on the process of counting kits, and ensuring justice for every survivor.

In March, the Kentucky General Assembly passed a resolution directing my office, the state’s Auditor Office, to count the number of untested sexual assault kits in the state. Officials and constituents in Kentucky, like those in many other states and cities, were eager for the state to pursue millions of dollars in grants that are now available to clear these backlogs. And my office too was eager to do this work, but we knew we had to go further. We had to examine the underlying reasons kits aren’t submitted to the forensic laboratory and explore best practices that could be applied here. If we only counted the kits, I feared we would be back here counting kits again five years from now. Victims of these heinous crimes deserve more than a number. They deserve real reform.

My office worked with the Kentucky State Police (KSP) and the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs (KASAP), a coalition of the 13 rape crisis centers throughout the state, to draft a survey we could send to police departments and sheriffs’ offices throughout the state. The questions were aimed at getting an initial count of untested sexual assault kits and assessing whether law enforcement had policies and procedures for handling the kits and conducting sexual assault investigations. We launched the 19-question surveys to nearly 400 law enforcement agencies in April. After the initial deadline, there were roughly 240 agencies that had not responded. A team of auditors and interns followed-up with emails and calls to ultimately attain a 100 percent response rate. 

Auditors analyzed survey responses of agencies that indicated they investigate sexual assaults. These agencies initially reported a much larger total number of sexual assault kits in their possession. However, auditors discovered that the survey question was misunderstood by some law enforcement agencies, who mistakenly included a count of both tested and untested sexual assault kits in their possession, or included uncollected/unused kits.

As an aside, it can be tempting to ask a lot of questions on a survey. But it is important to avoid mission creep and garner a higher response rate with a short and concise questionnaire.

Lessons learned: You get one bite at the apple—and it is imperative that you ask the right questions in precisely the right way. 

To further verify the count and understand policies related to sexual assault investigations, auditors visited seven law enforcement agencies. They interviewed special victims unit investigators and evidence custodians, walked through evidence rooms, examined sexual assault kits and studied evidence logging, tracking and storing methods. Additional phone interviews were conducted with other agencies.

In addition to these interviews, we co-hosted 14 stakeholder meetings across the Commonwealth with KASAP. I personally attended every one of these meetings, traveling thousands of miles across the state to hear from advocates, law enforcement, victims, prosecutors and others. These meetings were key to the success of this initiative. The meetings were widely covered by local media, helping to educate citizens about the issue and laying the groundwork for the release of our report. They broke down barriers with law enforcement, many of whom were skeptical about this initiative and our intentions. But most significantly, these meetings formed the basis of the report. I strongly believe policy makers must go out into the field and seek solutions from stakeholders and the community at large. We absolutely achieved that here. 

The strongest example is one of the report’s observations related to the lack of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs) and inconsistencies in the quality of care that victims are receiving at our emergency rooms. This issue initially seemed outside the intended scope of our examination, but we heard these concerns at every single one of the stakeholder meetings. We simply couldn’t ignore them. And frankly, while we need to work to get more kits submitted and tested, we also need to make sure that victims who have the courage to present to a hospital to undergo a sexual assault examination are treated with the compassion and respect they deserve in their darkest hours. 

My office also maintained close contact with key stakeholder organizations, including the state Fraternal Order of Police, Association of Chiefs of Police, Sheriff’s Association, KASAP and the Kentucky Hospital Association. We cannot tell police, hospitals or advocates how to do their jobs, but we can work with them to offer feedback and fresh ideas. Ultimately, real progress will be achieved only when stakeholders have bought into the concept of reform. 

Lesson learned: Go out into communities, listen to stakeholders’ concerns and let them be the guiding light.

The final important element of this initiative was to explore best practices that are already occurring in other states and cities. While Kentucky is one of only 16 states to have a count of its untested kits, a handful of other states are further ahead in changing legislation and fixing this broken system. We studied these models and ultimately made recommendations based on what we think would work best in Kentucky.

I intend to help push these reforms through the next General Assembly and work with stakeholders like law enforcement and hospitals to make other needed improvements. Already, KHA and KASAP are partnering together to improve the quality of care victims receive at hospitals and to attract and retain more SANEs. One of my goals is to make Kentucky a national model for providing high quality care to victims and making SANEs available at every emergency room in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. 

The public outrage from thousands of unprocessed rape kits knows no demographic, no region and no political party. The commitment to reforming and rebuilding this system, for demonstrating that victims matter, should be just as consistent. 

We are equal to the task.

- By Adam Edelen, November 2nd, 2015

ENDTHEBACKLOG is a program 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.

keep up with backlog news

END THE BACKLOG is a JOYFUL HEART FOUNDATION initiative and a proud supporter of