Rape kit backlog forcing city to look outward, victims notified years later

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Photo Credit: Emma Overholt | Daily Texan Staff

Austin Police Department’s thousands of backlogged rape kits have been tested, but still need to be reviewed and entered into the Combined DNA Index Systems, the FBI’s national DNA database. While the Austin-area DNA lab is indexing DNA kits from the backlog, APD needs other labs to index the new cases that arrive each month.

Austin City Council approved four items last week to aid the Capital Area DNA Lab with preventing a future backlog of DNA kits and processing incoming cases. 

According to APD, out of the original 2017 backlog of 3,294 untested rape kits, some of which date back to the 1990s, there are still 1,300 that need to be indexed into the database. All 3,294 have been tested for DNA and APD has started to reach out to victims.

Troy Gay, APD chief of staff, said the department is working on a notification plan to contact survivors when their kit is processed. He said the department will reach out as soon as they receive lab results regardless of if the case will be reopened or not. If the kit has a database hit, survivors will have the option of learning if the DNA in the kit is from a nonconsensual partner. 

“Because some of these cases are years old when we’ll be reaching out, we’ll be asking the survivors from our counselors if they do want to have that information and are prepared,” Gay said. “We have already received some feedback from our survivors that they may not want to know.”

 

The APD cold cases unit has been reviewing hundreds of lab reports to check for cases that could be reopened. The unit has had two hits in the database meaning DNA in kits could be tied to someone in the database. When the unit reached out to the victims about the hits, one was deceased and the other could not be reached. Because of the age of some of the rape kits, the crime could have occurred two decades ago. Neither of the cases have been referred to prosecution so far. 

Cap Lab, APD’s former DNA lab now managed by the Department of Public Safety, is staffed by four DNA analysts. The four analysts are tasked with reviewing and determining the eligibility of 1,300 cases for the database. The lab can work through 30 cases per month, according to APD. The lab is also working on training four more analysts by July 2020. 

“We’ve been working very hard the past six months or so putting together the parts and pieces to truly expedite the CODIS review and upload of those sexual assault cases that have been processed and reported,” Cap Lab director Dana Kadavy said.

At the City Council meeting last Thursday, Kadavy said the database review process of the backlogged cases needed to be quicker and APD is working on a plan to outsource the process. 

“We’ve identified the very limited, niche providers of these services throughout the nation, and we’re working with the Department of the Justice, who’s going to fund this effort,” Kadavy said. “We’re going to be able to truly impact how quickly we can do that part of the process.”

Kadavy said the full plan was not ready for last week’s meeting and to expect an agenda item in the next couple of weeks. According to APD, the lab’s capacity will increase to an estimated 45 cases per month by the end of the year and 75 by next July because of the extra staffing.

Because Cap Lab will be focused on processing the 1,300 rape cases from the original backlog, City Council approved two interlocal agreements with the University of North Texas Health and Science Center and the Houston Forensic Science Center to review and index new DNA cases. The two labs will not be working on cases from the current backlog.