After a year of Idaho using an online tracking system for sexual assault kits, the nation’s first, the system has proved to be a success.
The online tracking system allows sexual assault victims to track their sexual assault kits, and it keeps law enforcement more organized and accountable in the process, said Matthew Gamette, Idaho State Police laboratory systems director.
Gamette said he has spoken with most of the states surrounding Idaho and a few states in the Midwest about its new online system. He is doing another presentation in September in Texas.
After an Idaho Press-Tribune investigation in 2016 uncovered varying rates of rape kits submitted for testing by Idaho police agencies, Wintrow introduced and passed a series of bills that clearly outlined requirements for submitting rape kits for testing.
Previously, there were no statewide requirements for how long a kit had to be kept or what had to be submitted to the Idaho State Police, Gamette said.
With legislation that became effective in July 2016, a statewide law is now in place that requires all law enforcement agencies to track the number of kits they have. The law did not mandate every kit be tested.
Gamette emphasized that because each state has different laws and procedures, other states likely will not implement the same exact technology Idaho has. But if they do, Idaho State Police is offering its technology free to other states.
“Now they need to look at what we have done and are learning and implement it in their own way,” Gamette said.
Before the new online tracking system, if victims wanted to know how far into the process their kit was, they had to call local law enforcement, a process that could be intimidating for victims.
The new online tracking system allows victims to see at what stage of investigation their kit is, and the system is completely anonymous.
“It creates greater accountability, and it empowers victims,” Wintrow said. “It was the missing piece.”
Upon receiving a kit, the victim gets a serial number on the box, which allows them to track the status of the investigation online. All that is required is to put the serial number into the online system, no username or password is required.
If evidence in the kit leads to someone with a previous offense, the victim will know, Gamette said.
Some kits still may not be tested, though, and there are a few reasons for that, Gamette said. One reason a kit would not be tested is if a victim refuses to have his or her kit tested or if law enforcement determines no crime has been committed.
If a kit will not be tested, the victim is able to see that decision online, and a number is provided so the victim can get an explanation from the police agency, Gamette said.
CREATING A STATEWIDE POLICY
Not only does the online system help victims but it also helps local law enforcement. Prior to the new law, Idaho State Police had no way of knowing how many kits law enforcement departments around the state had. Additionally, there was no way of knowing what happened to each of the kits.
Following an Idaho Press-Tribune examination of 22 Idaho law enforcement departments via public record in 2016, the review found large disparities in rape kit testing among law enforcement agencies.
In addition, Gamette said the ISP previously did not have a budget for sexual assault kits and often it was the first thing dropped in a rough budget year.
Now, Gamette said, ISP has a budget of $5,500 each year to purchase sexual assault kits. Each kit is $10, allowing ISP to buy 550 kits per year.
Another piece of legislation that went into effect July 1, requires that kits must be stored for 55 years, Gamette said. In the case of a sexual assault conviction, the kit must be stored as long as the person’s sentence.
THE NATIONAL STATISTICS
Nationally, sexual assaults are the most underreported crimes in the country, Wintrow said.
One in five women and one in 71 men will be sexually assaulted at some point in their lives, according to an annual report done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC includes other forms of sexual violence in this statistic other than rape which is when a sexual assault kit is used. The CDC defines sexual violence as “victimization by any perpetrator, including rape (completed, attempted, and alcohol/drug facilitated forced penetration), being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, unwanted sexual contact, and non-contact unwanted sexual experiences.”
To illustrate the size of the problem, Wintrow said those ratios for Idaho’s population alone would fill Boise State University’s football stadium roughly about 3 to 4 times with women who are victims of sexual assault.
Wintrow believes this is currently the best approach for victims of sexual assault to be heard without being victim-blamed and shamed.
Gamette said that the sooner a victim can be taken to the hospital to get the tests done, the more accurate results can be.
As time goes by, evidence fades.
The kits go through an initial screening process which searches for the male DNA — the Y chromosome. In cases of females who have experienced sexual assaults, the screening looks for the Y chromosome, and if it is not found, the kit gets put back on the shelf.
“The process goes a lot faster now,” Gamette said.
In fact, Gamette said biology screening went up by 86 percent from July 2016 to July 2017. That means sexual assault kits are being processed at a much faster rate.
BRINGING ATTENTION TO A SERIOUS ISSUE
When the Idaho Press-Tribune began an investigation in Sept. 2015 into numerous law enforcement agencies, it found the Nampa Police Department had the lowest rate of kit submissions to the state lab, at 10 percent.
As of March 2016, Nampa submitted 90 of the 105 untested kits to labs for testing, said Nampa Police Capt. Brad Daniels.
The new legislation “has brought attention to an area we want to be more attentive to,” Nampa Police Department Lt. Eric Skoglund said.
From July 2016 to July 2017, 478 sexual assault kits have been collected in Idaho. In total, 3,570 sexual assault kits have been submitted into the online system. These include kits from previous years.
Next on Wintrow’s list is to pass legislation that would prohibit hospitals from billing victim’s insurance companies. Instead, she said she wants Idaho to pay the bill hospitals give victims’ insurance companies for sexual assault kit testing.