The Joyful Heart Foundation was honored to participate in the second annual Sexual Assault Kit (SAK) Summit for Cities, which convened on October 19 – 20 in Memphis, Tennessee. Having attended the inaugural summit last year, I am encouraged to see how much the participation has grown: from representatives of four jurisdictions last year, to 26 this year—from cities and towns of all sizes across 15 states. I was honored to give the keynote speech: urging the attendees to make the commitment to test every kit—backlogged and current—and to push forward with their work in a way that is survivor-centered and trauma-informed.
Every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. Most of these assaults—for a myriad of reasons—will never be reported to law enforcement. But each year, thousands of survivors do report their rape to the police. They agree to have evidence collected from their bodies, which have now become living, breathing crime scenes.
Yet hundreds of thousands of times, this evidence has gone untested. 2,655 untested kits in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 753 in Allegheny County in Pennsylvania. 6,000 throughout Washington State. 8 in Prairie Village, Kansas. Across the country, it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain untested in law enforcement storage facilities and crime labs.
The goal of the summit was to share strategies, tips and tools about aspects of this work that all cities will face when dealing with untested kits including testing, investigating crimes, prosecuting offenders and engaging survivors in the process.
All 26 cities represented are now turning towards their untested kits in some way. Some, like Seattle, Jacksonville and Charlotte, are just starting out; some, like Detroit, Cleveland and Memphis, have been working towards ending their backlogs for years. Many of the summit participants have just received grants to eliminate the backlog in their cities from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, the U.S Department of Justice or both. It’s already clear how critical these funds will be to provide the resources communities need to test their kits and see the cases through the criminal justice process in a survivor-centered way.
The summit included panels on lessons learned from four “pioneer” cities and breakout sessions that brought together attendees from similar professions— law enforcement, prosecutors, victim advocates, sexual assault forensic examiners, government officials and lab professionals—to exchange ideas and information. Attendees also heard from two private labs about their testing programs, and officials from the Department of Justice discussed the federal government’s role in ending the backlog. A representative from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office shared information about their rape kit testing grant program. Much of the conversation centered on survivors’ needs and wishes and the importance of multi-disciplinary collaboration.
The people who gathered for the second SAK Summit have a powerful opportunity to build a community that acknowledges the truth about sexual assault, that embraces survivors and that insists on meaningful change. In this light, we must live up to the moment—and movement—for change we are in. We must be ambitious and committed to a path forward that ensures all survivors have greater access to healing and justice.
- By Ilse Knecht, 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.