The Davenport Police Department has 463 untested sexual assault kits sitting in evidence, the second-highest number in the state, according to a new report released by the Iowa Attorney General’s Office.
The report, a yearlong survey of 387 city and county law enforcement agencies conducted by the state Attorney General’s Crime Victim Assistance Division, shows there are 4,265 sexual assault kits that haven't been tested in Iowa.
Attorney General Tom Miller said in a news release that his office is working with law enforcement statewide to get a better handle on the backlog of cases “with a goal of bringing offenders to justice while supporting and empowering Iowa’s sexual assault survivors.”
The audit, known as the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, is the result of legislation passed in 2016 requiring the survey and a report to the Legislature. It is funded by a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and is part of a nationwide effort to address a backlog of untested kits.
“Our hope is to do justice,” Miller said during a news conference last week. “Our hope is that we will find perpetrators of sex abuse, perhaps some of them serial perpetrators. We’ll be able to apprehend them and charge them and put them in prison.”
A team made-up of law enforcement, prosecutors, crime victim advocates and public health professionals developed the survey to determine the scope of untested sexual assault kits and reasons behind it.
The survey found that 168 of 387, or 43 percent, of law enforcement agencies are storing untested kits and that nine of those agencies, including Davenport, account for 63 percent of the untested kits.
Iowa law requires law enforcement to retain sexual assault kits for 10 years for adult victims and 10 years following a minor victim’s 18th birthday.
The law also has a separate statute of limitations for old sexual assault cases; the three-year time frame begins to run if, through the development of a DNA profile, investigators discover the identity of a previously unknown perpetrator, according to the attorney general’s office.
According to the report, Davenport police had 463 untested kits, Bettendorf police had 25 untested kits and the Scott County Sheriff’s Office had 12. Blue Grass, Buffalo, Eldridge and LeClaire police departments did not have any untested kits, according to the report.
Des Moines reported 877 untested kits, the highest in the state.
Chief Deputy Attorney General Eric Tabor said Monday most survey responses from agencies were returned in the summer of 2016 and there may be more kits that have been collected since then.
As of Monday, the sheriff’s office has 23 untested kits, Sheriff Tim Lane said. Lane said the department is given criteria from the state crime lab for sending kits for testing.
“Of course, we’ve got a reason here for everything that was sent and everything that was not sent,” he said. “There are various reasons why one would not be sent.”
One reason, Lane said, is that the accuser did not want to file charges or participate in prosecution. Some kits also may not be sent for testing if there is a guilty plea early on in a case or the county attorney has determined that there is not enough evidence to proceed with the case, he said.
The state survey found that 800 of the kits, or nearly 19 percent, were untested because the victim did not want to file charges. Lack of cooperation by the victim and doubt of the “truthfulness” of the accusation also were the most common reasons why kits are not sent, according to the survey.
Davenport police officials declined to be interviewed about its untested kits, saying they could not comment on specifics of past cases. Chief Paul Sikorski said in a news release, however, that the department has been “actively working on reviewing our protocols of sex crime investigations” since he began his tenure.
“In addition to our current property and evidence system, the Criminal Investigation Division is establishing a comprehensive case tracking system which includes case review and consultation with the Scott County Attorney’s Office specifically regarding sexual assault cases,” according to the release. “This tracking system will include the submission and or disposition of sex assault kits and other evidence. It will also encompass recommendations made by the Iowa Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI).”
He added that the department will continue to analyze its protocols and assess the need for further training, education and standardization.
Kits are provided by the state Division of Criminal Investigation, which also processes the kits at its crime lab in Ankeny.
The lab tests DNA from saliva, blood and semen as well as from sweat and skin. The sample then is uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, to find a match to a suspect whose DNA sample already is registered in the national database. In Iowa, anyone convicted of a felony or a sex crime must submit a DNA specimen to that database.
The law enforcement agency that sent the kit can use a match in CODIS as evidence to prosecute a suspect.
Scott County Sheriff’s Maj. Shawn Roth said the turnaround time to get kits back from the lab is between eight and nine months.
“When we speak to victims, it’s frustrating for them to wait eight or nine months for some sort of resolution,” Roth said. “There may not be anything, and they are waiting that long just to hear there’s nothing there or, the complete opposite, that we have to wait eight or nine months and we don’t know who this person is in those particular cases. Those are the scary ones."
The kits can be especially helpful in cases where a perpetrator is not known to the victim but may not yield any significant evidentiary value in cases where consent is in dispute.
“There should be DNA if there is a sex act,” he said. “So, the DNA in and of itself would not be something we look at and go, ‘That’s going to break a case.’ More likely than not, they are going to tell us the sex act in and of itself is not in question. Whether it’s consensual is the question.”
Still, medical screening is still important so that the victims can be checked out, Roth said.
“That way, they have some sort of peace of mind that they didn’t catch anything, and they can work work with the right channels to get the appropriate care they need,” he said.
Victims can request a sexual assault kit, which is typically administered at a hospital, but they do not have to submit their names or talk to police if they do not want to, Roth said.
Roth and Lane said that sexual abuse and assault still are very much under-reported crimes.
“There are a lot of times when you hear of these cases and no one comes forward, or we see sex assault kits come into a hospital and the person doesn’t necessarily want to file anything with law enforcement; they just want to find out medically if they are OK,” Roth said. “Which is fine, that’s completely up to the victim. But you know if they are not coming forward to at least give us the story of what happened, we can only speculate that it happens more times than not.”
Testing the state's backlog of untested kits would overwhelm the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation lab’s ongoing workload, Miller said, so the team will seek DNA testing through outside labs.
Officials are accepting bids from private labs to analyze the backlog of kits that are undergoing a case-by-case review by a panel of criminologists, victim advocates and law agencies. The bids are due April 24, and the first batch of tests could begin in June, with an expected 90-day turnaround for results, he said.
“We will put a priority on those that are bumping up against the statute of limitation,” Miller said.
He estimated about half of the kits would produce usable DNA, and 30 percent or 40 percent of those would generate matches with offenders.
A DCI lab administrator then will decide which results to run in the DNA database, and any hits they generate on suspects will be referred to law enforcement, he said.
The initiative also is pursuing the establishment of a statewide sexual assault kit tracking system that, when implemented, will track the status of all kits collected at a medical facility, stored by law enforcement or sent to laboratories for analysis. The initiative seeks to improve and standardize protocols associated with testing and victim support, training and a review of statutes on sexual assault kit testing.
Kerri True-Funk of the Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Abuse said at last week's news conference that the agency with work with local victim services organizations to make sure survivors receive adequate information and support as their cases move forward.
"A lot of these kits have been sitting untested with the victims believing their kits have been sent to the lab," she said. "So, that process is going to look very different for some victims than for others because they may believe their evidence has been tested or their case was closed and they don't understand where their evidence is sitting right now."
(Rod Boshart contributed to this report.)