Two weeks ago, I posted about Vice President Biden’s announcement of new initiatives from the federal government to improve the response to sexual and domestic violence. This week, I spoke with Kristina Rose, Deputy Director of the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), to discuss NIJ’s new sexual assault kit action research project.

Sarah Tofte: Tell me a bit about your background and how you got interested in issues around rape kit reform.

Kristina Rose: I have been working for about 25 years on crime and criminal justice issues. In the 1980’s, I was lucky enough to serve on a county crime victim board that addressed crime victims’ concerns, and that is where I got my first introduction to violence against women issues. Hearing crime victims tell their stories, especially around domestic violence and sexual assault, really moved me.

When I worked at the Office on Violence Against Women I had a great boss who supported the projects I felt most strongly about, which included sexual violence issues. I became very interested in best practices for treating victims of sexual assault, especially involving the forensic examination. We developed a virtual training DVD with Dartmouth Medical School and as part of that project, I produced a segment involving interviews with victims about the experience of their sexual assault kit exam. The interviews really opened my eyes to what it means for a victim to go through an exam. I would spend two to three hours with each victim, going through every detail they wanted to share with me about the assault and the forensic examination. What I came away with was the knowledge that the way in which a forensic exam is conducted—how good the medical personnel are at working with victims—greatly influences the victim’s healing process and the success of the criminal investigation.

ST: What impact does the rape kit examination have on a survivor?

KR: Every survivor I interviewed had a different experience. When the experience was positive—when the victim came in contact with a forensic examiner who was well-trained and understood how to conduct a forensic examination, treated the victim with respect, communicated to the victim what the exam entailed, told the victim the assault was not her fault—the healing process started in a very positive way.

When the exam was bad, it had such a detrimental impact on the victim. For example, if the examiner was insensitive or judgmental. It eroded their self-esteem, it eroded their confidence in the system and it affected their ability to heal fully. I learned quite a bit from their experiences, what was good, what was bad and why it is so important for the examination to be done carefully, respectfully and competently. Hearing the stories of these women was life-altering for me. It affects me to this day. I still think of them. I thought of them while we were planning this sexual assault kit evidence research project.

3. How did you learn about the backlog?

KR: I’m glad you asked the question in that way, Sarah, because it offers me a great opportunity to clarify something that we at NIJ are hoping to educate the public about: evidence that has not yet been sent to a crime lab is not truly a part of what most people consider to be “the backlog.” There is a backlog of evidence in crime labs, of course, and I have been aware of this since I was at the Office on Violence Against Women. But I didn’t truly understand the distinction between that “backlog” and untested sexual assault evidence kits that are still in police custody and have not actually been sent to a crime lab until I joined the National Institute of Justice.

When the discovery of thousands of untested kits in Los Angeles was revealed, my colleagues and I sat back and said, “Is there something we can do to help?”

We reached out directly to the crime lab directors at the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff’s Departments—Greg Matheson at the LAPD and Barry Fischer at the LASD. We told them NIJ had some additional resources and they were so open to accepting assistance. As a research organization, we considered how we could study the situation in L.A. and possibly identify some promising practices that could be adapted by other jurisdictions facing similar situations.

As soon as the discovery of these kits in Los Angeles became public, other jurisdictions began to come forward about their untested sexual assault kits and it became clear the problem was not just in Los Angeles, but that the problem was deeper and wider than anybody knew or expected.

ST: How did the NIJ sexual assault kit evidence action research project come into being?

KR: After helping out in Los Angeles, we decided to take a more national approach. We knew we would be able to identify some promising practices out of the L.A. project, but what works for L.A. might not work in other jurisdictions across the country. If we only look at L.A., it will not give us a full picture of all the promising practices that may be out there.

Our first thought was to select several jurisdictions and offer them technical assistance to deal with their untested kits.  But if we just focused on technical assistance, we won’t really understand why and how the issue of kits not sent for analysis came to be. When the money runs out, the problem may just build back up again and we may not have addressed the underlying issues.

We thought about how we could employ a research approach to get at those underlying issues. We decided to fund action-research projects in three-to-five jurisdictions around the country—asking practitioners and researchers to work together to identify the problem, identify strategies to address the problem, put those strategies in place, and measure the impact they are having.

Using the action research model, the researchers come in at the beginning and analyze the data and pinpoint where they see the problem. Once the problem has been identified, it is up to the practitioners to identify the strategies they want to use to move forward. The researchers are constantly measuring and monitoring the implementation of the strategy, and if a strategy doesn’t appear to be working, they can make mid-course corrections.  They can keep doing that until they find something that is making a difference. And I think that through this approach, we can get at some issues that we may never have known that are serving as causes of and barriers to solving the issue of kits not being sent to a lab for analysis.

ST: Why should a jurisdiction apply for this project?

KR: If a jurisdiction participates in this project: 1) there is a very good chance they will be able to test formerly unanalyzed kits; and 2) they will learn about and be able to put in place sustainable solutions. We want to help jurisdictions move from having unmanageable and overwhelming backlogs of evidence that is sent to a crime lab, those where you lose control of the process, to having a system that feels manageable for them.

We would like, ultimately, to produce protocols and practices to share with jurisdictions around the country that may also be experiencing large volumes of untested kits.  Practices that are based on evidence from research and data, and can help jurisdictions get a handle on the problem, so they are not overwhelmed by it, and can put systems in place to help them move forward.

ST: Five years from now, what do you hope this pilot project will have accomplished?

KR: The ultimate goal would be to reform our criminal justice system so that all sexual assault victims feel comfortable reporting their sexual assault because they know the system is going to work for them. They would know that if they went through an exam, the evidence would be tested in a timely manner and may yield results that would help bring an offender to justice. I would hope that no sexual assault victim would have to wait years for a kit to be tested and uploaded to CODIS. Through CODIS, we can match crime scenes to offenders, and match crime scenes to crime scenes and stop serial rapists from committing these crimes. I know that testing the kit is not going to be the answer to solving every case, but we can do more to solve sexual assault cases. Getting those kits tested in a timely way is one of those steps.

One question we hope to answer through this research project is whether it’s effective to test every kit. I know some jurisdictions are doing it, and right now we don’t have the evidence to show that this is the best practice.

Education and public awareness about sexual assault are essential to helping people understand this crime and why it’s so important to report it. Raising awareness, whether it’s through a foundation like Joyful Heart, whether it’s through the White House, whether it’s through federal grants, is vital.

It’s difficult for victims to come forward and report their sexual assault. It’s important that if we are going to encourage victims to come forward and have a forensic exam, we must have the processes in place to test those kits. From my experience interviewing survivors of sexual assault, I realized the impact of good care—medical and forensic—can have on the victim’s healing process and sense of justice.  Hopefully, the results of this research project will add to our knowledge of why sexual assault kit backlogs exist and help us figure out the best ways to address the problem.

To learn more about the NIJ research initiative, visit the project’s landing page here: http://www.ojp.usdoj.gov/nij/topics/forensics/sexual-assault-kits.htm