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New app takes aim at backlog of untested rape kits

Behind mirrored windows, inside the squat, gray building on Washington Street is a chilled storage room where paper bags, envelopes, and boxes, stuffed with evidence of sexual assault, await testing by the Boston Police Department’s forensic team.

It’s a chronic, systemic problem. There are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits backlogged in crime labs across the country, the federal government estimates. In Massachusetts, the backlog is around 400 and there are currently 42 rape kits at the police department’s Roxbury lab that have gone untested for more than 30 days, according to spokesman Sergeant Detective John Boyle.

Now a new Web-based app, authorized by the state’s criminal justice reform bill in 2018, is seeking to reduce the bottleneck by showing where rape kits are stored and how long they have gone untested. It lets survivors know the status of their case and provides this information to law enforcement, medical staff, and prosecutors, with an eye on moving cases forward at a faster pace.

The confidential “Track-Kit” system was rolled-out in January in several counties, including Barnstable, Bristol, Nantucket, Norfolk, and Plymouth. It arrived in Boston late last month.

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“Before Track-Kit was put in place there was no opportunity for individuals and survivors to get up-to-date accurate information about the status of their forensic exam,” said Toni Troop, director of communications for Jane Doe Inc., a sexual assault and domestic violence prevention group. “It offers a transparency around the system and can both give comfort to survivors and allow the system to keep track and make sure it is working.”

The state’s sweeping criminal justice reform bill, enacted two years ago, mandated a statewide inventory of untested evidence, which uncovered 418 rape kits that had never been tested. It also laid out clear timelines for the testing of all DNA evidence kits.

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Hospitals must notify law enforcement within 24 hours after a kit is collected. Officers then have three business days to pick it up and seven to submit it to a crime lab. The crime lab must then analyze it within 30 days, otherwise it is considered part of a backlog.

Track-Kit will notify agencies of testing deadlines. It will also provide resources to victims of sexual assault, including contact information for area rape crisis center resources, hospitals, police departments, and the district attorney’s office.

“The process of collecting evidence of a sexual assault is intrusive in its nature, and we have a responsibility to handle the individual, and any evidence, with the urgency, delicate care, and attention they deserve,” Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins said by e-mail.

There is no federal mandate that rape kits be counted or tracked and few jurisdictions have a system to effectively do so. Track-Kit is developed by STACS DNA, a private company that has designed similar systems in Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, Texas, and Washington. The state is paying the company $1 million for a five-year contract.

Last year, nine states, including Massachusetts, Connecticut, Washington, and New York, enacted full legislative rape kit processing reform that imposed guidelines for testing, tracking, and counting kits, and granted greater protections for victims.

Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for Joyful Heart Foundation, a national organization fighting to clear untested rape kit backlogs across the country, said she believes official estimates vastly understate the scope of the problem.

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“For a state like Massachusetts to say that every kit is being tested, even if you are doing a fantastic job, [the backlog] still seems really low … It’s obvious that there are kits at the lab waiting to be tested,” Knecht said. “Clearly there’s some kind of issue that hasn’t come to the light of day yet.”

The foundation has filed public records requests to 15 of Massachusetts’ largest cities, including Cambridge, Somerville, Lowell, Malden, and Quincy, seeking a breakdown of the number of kits in their possession and how long they have had them.

Expanded testing is long overdue, said City University of New York professor Elizabeth Jeglic, who focuses on sexual violence prevention. Advocates must continue to pressure legislators to improve accountability, she said.

A comprehensive database of all evidence kits is “something tangible that they can work towards,” she said. Cultural shifts in how sexual assault is perceived and understood might take longer, but high-profile prosecutions like Harvey Weinstein’s are a hopeful sign changes are coming, she added.

The effort to reduce evidence backlogs is likely to increase the workload of lab technicians and forensic specialists. Governor Charlie Baker’s recent supplemental budget included $8 million to help finance increased testing and Boston city councilors are calling for more staff and better training at the police department’s crime lab.

“Our lab is well known, well regarded, fully accredited, and celebrated as a good lab, but we need more capacity, we need to be able to do more,” said Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George.

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In Boston, 42 people are left to wait and wonder whether their attacker will be brought to justice.

“Every case that goes through the crime lab, there is a victim,” said Essaibi-George. “We need to make sure we’re able to do our investigations in a way that is responsible to that victim."