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We the People

How many untested rape kits are there in Lancaster County? [We the People report]

How many untested rape kits are there in Lancaster County? [We the People report]

Without the evidence gathered in a rape kit, Gabriel Valentin-Rodriguez, Antwuan Gomez and Robert Pitt wouldn’t have been charged with sexual assault crimes committed in Lancaster County.

Convictions in all three cases give an example of how a rape kit test can make all the difference for prosecution.

Pennsylvania has been taking a closer look at how it handles and reports rape kits since Act 27 — an expansion on the Sexual Assault Testing and Evidence Collection Act — went into effect in 2015.

Act 27 set requirements for reporting how many kits are backlogged, meaning untested for more than 12 months.

State looks to eliminate rape kit backlog, but first count finds confusion

A review the next year by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale criticized state law enforcement and health officials for both the backlog and for a poor reporting system.

After years of renewed effort, the number of reported backlogged kits statewide has decreased by over 60 percent, from 1,908 kits in 2016 to 689 in 2018. Along with that, the number of reporting agencies has increased from about one-third to 90 percent of the nearly 1,100 departments in Pennsylvania.

Kendra Saunders wanted to know what the number looked like in Lancaster County, where she has been a counseling psychologist at Millersville University for 15 years.

She submitted a question through We the People, LancasterOnline’s reader-powered journalism project:

“How many untested rape kits are there in Lancaster County? Who or what determines if a rape kit will be tested?” she asked.

Saunders said she has worked with many sexual assault victims.

“One really simple thing we can do to show that we value victims is to test their rape kits,” she told LNP.

How the reporting works

A review of Department of Health data and interviews with several police chiefs showed that there were no backlogged rape kits in Lancaster County in 2017.

“If there are zero untested rape kits in Lancaster County, that is certainly a very good thing,” DePasquale recently told LNP.

One of the things Act 27 did was require municipal departments to report annually how many of their kits are backlogged. In the first report in 2016, Lancaster County departments had 28 backlogged kits. Officials at many of the departments said they did not understand how to report the information correctly.

New Holland Police Department was the only county force not included in the 2018 report, but it doesn’t have a backlog, Chief William Leighty said.

There’s still some confusion in reporting, Northwest Regional police Chief Mark Mayberry said.

He said the department had one backlogged kit in 2017, but it should have been in the “victim did not consent” category for explaining why it wasn’t tested. He said he’ll correct it in the next report.

Manor Township also had one kit in the backlog category in 2017, but Chief Todd Graeff said that, too, should be listed as a kit for which the victim did not give consent for testing.

According to the Lancaster County district attorney’s office, however, a backlog hasn’t been a problem with county departments.

“I can only speak for Lancaster County in saying we have never had a true backlog in the sense of kits that should be tested (are) essentially neglected in evidence lockers,” district attorney spokesman Brett Hambright said.

Kits that had been classified as backlogged fell under two categories that the Department of Health added for its April 2018 report: a victim who did not consent to testing or an anonymous victim, Hambright said.

The categories were added to help law enforcement agencies know how to categorize the kits, according to the Department of Health.

Overall, the report shows progress on reporting statewide, with 90 percent of municipal departments reporting and a 1,200-kit decrease in the backlog overall.

Testing and destruction

State police tested 1,235 rape kits last year. Lancaster County police departments submitted 42 cases in 2017, and all were tested, according  to state police spokesman Ryan Tarkowski.

Hospital staff are on the front lines of the testing process.

At Lancaster General, trained Sexual Assault Forensic Nurse Examiners, or SAFE nurses, provide care to victims of sexual assault, according to Mary Ann Eckard, spokeswoman for Lancaster General Health.

“The SAFE nurse’s primary concern is for the patient’s physical and emotional well-being. Evidence collection is important, but the patient’s medical needs and emotional well-being are always the first focus,” Eckard said.

UPMC Pinnacle Lancaster and Lititz also offer the testing.

After evidence is gathered in a rape kit, victims must give consent for a kit to be tested by police, according to state law. And some victims decide against taking that step.

“That number will probably never be zero,” DePasquale said.

Testing rape kits “does help prevent future rapes and crack down on future crimes,” he said. “But you have to respect the wishes of the victim and walk through it with the victim.” 

Police from the jurisdiction in which the crime happened have 72 hours to pick the kit up from the hospital. And those departments have 15 days to send it to one of three state labs: the Philadelphia Office of Forensic Sciences, the Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner and state police’s forensic services.

Cases are prioritized based on factors such as severity of offense, pending court dates and order in which they are received, according to state police.

If a victim does not give immediate approval for testing, their kit must be stored for at least two years, according to state law.

After a kit is tested, it’s returned to the submitting agency and saved until all court proceedings are finished or the statute of limitations has expired,  Tarkowski said.

However, Lancaster city police keep kits without victim consent for testing an additional 10 years, in line with the statute of limitations of 12 years for adult victims in Pennsylvania, according to Lt. Phil Berkheiser. Kits from child victims are kept until the juvenile turns 50, also in line with the statute of limitations for sex offenses.

In the past, Lancaster police wouldn’t send kits for testing if the victim originally consented but then stopped talking with investigators. Now, as long as the victim gives initial consent, the department sends the kits unless a victim says not to proceed, he said.

Still, some victims don’t want the police to get involved, Berkheiser said.

“Some may feel that they are not ready to talk about it to law enforcement and can be assured that the evidence will be properly collected and held until they are ready to proceed,” he said.

More work to be done

One of state police’s challenges is having enough personnel and facilities to do the testing, according to Tarkowski. A new DNA testing facility is being designed in Westmoreland County for a tentative 2020 opening.

The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape continues to advocate for more laws to guide the handling of kits even after they’re tested.

For example, there are no guidelines to alert victims if their kit is about to be destroyed, according to coalition spokeswoman Kristen Houser.

“We would certainly like to see Pennsylvania close the gap and have guidelines all around on kit collection, kit processing, kit storage and kit destruction,” Houser told LNP.

The coalition is named in Act 27 as responsible for working with state police to make standards for kits and approve of testing laboratories.

At least two bills in the state Senate would add to Act 27 and help victims (see information box).

“We really try to advocate for giving as many options as possible and make sure (victims) have support through the rape crisis centers across Pennsylvania,” Houser said.

Being a victim of sexual assault is a devastating event in and of itself, Saunders said, let alone the process of getting a rape kit done and working with a police investigation.

“I think we have a duty to handle the information that we collect very carefully,” she said.

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