University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work researchers have been chosen by the U.S. Department of Justice to participate in a study to determine why rape kits are not being tested and used as possible evidence in sexual assault cases.
Untested sexual assault evidence kits are being discovered in police evidence rooms all across the country having broad ramifications for the police and crime laboratories, for the courts and for the victims, say the researchers.
The National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the research and development arm of the Justice Department, is awarding $1 million each to two jurisdictions — Wayne County, Michigan and the city of Houston, Texas — to help the country come up with innovative approaches to solve the problem.
NIJ Director John Laub said the research projects “will enable us to better understand what happens to sexual assault evidence, why it might not be analyzed and what we need to do to fix the problem. When sexual assault kits go untested, it can result in significant and unnecessary delays in justice for victims.”
“We know that forensic testing of sexual assault kits is expensive,” said Dr. Noel Busch-Armendariz, director of the university’s Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault (IDVSA) and co-principal investigator on the Houston research team. “We also know for the victim – who experienced not only the trauma of a sexual assault, but the secondary invasion involved in gathering evidence for the rape kit — having that kit tested has no price.
“We are thrilled that the federal government is taking such an interest in this problem and is willing to fund a new model for dealing with sexual assault kits.”
The kit is what could lead to the apprehension of the perpetrator, and that’s important to the victim and the safety of our communities, said Busch-Armendariz. “By working with our partners at the Houston Police Department and Sam Houston State University, we hopefully will be able to make a difference for victims, law enforcement and communities.”
Busch-Armendariz, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, has been working in the interpersonal violence field for 19 years.
It is unknown how many unanalyzed sexual assault kits there are nationwide. The Houston Police Department, for example, is storing about 16,000 sexual assault kits, and a random search indicated that 4,220 frozen kits have been untested.
The university researchers are joining representatives from the Houston Police Department, crime lab, prosecutor’s offices, community-based victim services organizations and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE) to develop a strategy to tackle the problem, with special emphasis on how and when to notify victims if or that their sexual assault kit, which may be several years old, is going to be tested.
Busch-Armendariz and other institute researchers, including IDVSA Associate Director for Research Laurie Cook Heffron and Shetal Vohra-Gupta, a postdoctoral fellow, will conduct interviews with victims, parents of minor victims and victim advocates to determine how best to address victim needs in sexual assault cold cases.
“One of the biggest concerns with untested sexual assault kits is ramifications for victims,” said Busch-Armendariz. “Should decisions be made to test the previously untested kits, whether and how to notify victims is a crucial question.
“And, there is a strong desire among team members to investigate these crimes and hold perpetrators accountable.”