It will take another year to finish testing a backlog of sexual assault kits in Washington, state officials said.
In a response to a state performance audit released last week, Washington State Patrol Chief John R. Batiste said his agency has made progress in clearing the backlog, but likely won't finish testing remaining kits until December 2023.
As of Oct. 31, the state crime laboratory had 4,477 kits that haven't been tested yet, down from around 10,000 in August 2019.
The audit covered the lab's management of the online sexual assault kit tracking program, which launched in November 2018. That program allows survivors of sexual assault to track the progress of submitted kits as they move from collection, to analysis, to storage and eventual destruction.
The oldest untested kit reported by police dates back to 1982, the audit said.
State Patrol has tested 83% of all kits received since 2015, and 4,477 are waiting to be tested. Of those awaiting testing, 1,830 are newer kits, and 2,647 are older kits, spokesman Chris Loftis said in an email.
The lab receives about 2,000 new sexual assault kits annually for testing, according to the audit.
After a sexual assault occurs, a nurse or medical professional collects forensic evidence at a medical facility. They tell the investigating agency when the kit is ready, and an officer takes the kit and completes related paperwork. The investigating agency then submits the kit and paperwork to a State Patrol crime lab for testing.
The State Patrol is responsible for testing all sexual assault kits statewide, either at one of its crime labs or by contracting with a private lab. Forensic scientists screen the evidence in the kit for the presence of anyone's DNA other than the survivor's. If there is enough DNA, it is used to generate a DNA profile that is uploaded into a national database maintained by the FBI. It can then be compared to DNA from known offenders and other crime scene samples if it meets certain requirements.
Research suggests that about half of those who commit sexual assault have done so more than once, according to the audit.
The issue of untested sexual assault kits is a long-standing concern for survivors, their families and advocates, law enforcement and lawmakers throughout the United States. Some states such as Oregon, Florida and Ohio have eliminated their backlogs of untested kits, the audit says.
In 2019, the Legislature increased funding to eliminate what was then a backlog of approximately 9,000 untested kits in Washington. It set a deadline to test historical kits — requiring the State Patrol to send kits to private labs for testing by Dec. 1, 2021 — and reduced the turnaround on testing of all newly submitted kits to 45 days from what had been months or more than a year.
The legislation also required the state Auditor's Office to review the testing and tracking system in 2022.
Although the State Patrol has implemented recommended practices for testing kits and the sexual assault kit tracking system, the audit shows that a backlog of untested kits remains. The State Patrol estimates it will finish testing historical kits, which includes studying results from private labs, by the end of this year, according to the audit. It expects to eliminate the backlog of newer kits by the end of 2023.
There are valid reasons for the backlog, including disruptions stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Because of that, officials make no new recommendations in their audit.
"However, we must emphasize the importance of the State Patrol staying the course without further delays. It must prioritize planned improvements to ensure the testing backlog is eliminated," the report said. "This issue must not fade from public scrutiny; our office will check on the State Patrol's progress again in a future audit."
As work continues to eliminate the backlog of newer and historical kits awaiting testing by State Patrol, state officials don't know the actual number of untested kits statewide because no agency is responsible for ensuring law enforcement agencies submit all kits for testing within the required deadlines, the audit says.
The State Patrol is aware of some police agencies that haven't submitted historical kits in compliance with the deadline required by the 2019 legislation and doesn't have the control or authority to compel them to do so, according to the audit.
Nor does the state Attorney General's Office, which says it lacks the authority to audit the number of kits in police custody. That office's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative project, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, is part of a coordinated effort to test every backlogged sexual assault kit in the state.
Though neither agency can compel law enforcement agencies to submit historical kits for testing, "Both the Patrol and the Attorney General's Office said they are currently working with police to identify and submit any outstanding historical kits for testing," the audit says.