Trauma is often seen as a singular event, something that has a clear beginning and a concise end.

That beginning is all too clear for survivors of rape and sexual assault. But for many, there is no end in sight: only a prolonged, painful and perpetual middle.

While the majority of sex crimes go unreported, according to U.S. Department of Justice data, victims who pursue criminal charges often spend years waiting for justice. In Washington, thousands of survivors who underwent sexual assault forensic examinations to provide police with evidence kits remain in limbo, not knowing what became of their kits and hoping a new state tracking system will provide a sense of closure and justice.

Sara, a Central Washington woman, said she was in her early 20s when she was raped in 2005 by a man who broke into her home and went into her bedroom, where she was sleeping. She didn’t know the man; he was a roommate’s friend whom she had met several hours before at a party, during which she had refused the man’s advances.

After the incident, she went to a hospital where she underwent vaginal and rectal swabbing for DNA samples along with providing pubic hairs for evidence to be collected in a sexual assault kit.

Police, doctors, nurses, and victim advocates were in and out of the room. The process took hours, Sara said, and medications she was given to prevent sexually transmitted infections made her sick for several days. Investigators also took her clothes, her bedding and her mattress for evidence.

“It left me way more traumatized than the rape itself,” said Sara, who is now in her mid-30s and spoke on the condition that her real name and town where she lives not be published. “I can understand why someone would choose not to do that based on the invasiveness of the kit itself.”

Then, in 2016, she was raped again by another man. She said that after her earlier assault that she never wanted to go through the rape-kit process again, so for her 2016 case she opted to just undergo a DNA swab.

When all was done, she assumed both kits would be tested and justice would be served. Today, more than a decade after the 2005 rape, Sara said she still doesn’t know what became of that kit or even if it was tested and analyzed by the state crime lab. She added that she was contacted by officials to say her 2016 swab was analyzed, but was not told the results or how the evidence would be used.

“If your case is sitting there and sitting there for years, it feels at that point that the justice system doesn’t (care),” Sara said.

She is not alone. Sara is one of thousands of survivors In Washington still in the dark, wondering whether their kits will become the key to unlocking a conviction or just another trauma that keeps them from moving on.

The state is now trying to bring light to that darkness with a new initiative to track kits. The system went live in the Tacoma area in February and is expected to be fully implemented statewide by the end of October.

Using non-identifiable usernames and passwords, survivors can check the status of their kits online, from their creation in the hospital all the way through testing and completion. The kits have barcodes that are scanned into the system by officials each time they go to a different link in the chain of custody, much like tracking numbers for packages ordered online. Survivors are given a person to contact and local resources at each step.

Stacked to the ceiling

The system is the product of a 2016 bill pushed by state Rep. Tina Orwall, a south King County Democrat, who in 2014 toured evidence rooms where she saw sexual assault kits stacked to the ceiling. Her bill required the Washington State Patrol to develop a tracking system and make semi-annual reports about the progress of tested and untested kits.

It was designed with two main goals. One is to allow victims to know where their kits are in the process. The other is to provide officials with information needed to help fix the system, including accurate numbers of sexual assault kits and a clear view of their progression.

Another piece of legislation protected the DNA within rape kits from being destroyed within the statute of limitations for prosecution, which can vary depending on whether the victim is an adult or a child and how soon the crime is reported to authorities.

“This allows the state to know exactly how many kits there are, how long it takes, where the outliers are and what resources are needed to expedite the testing of kits,” Orwall said.

The scope of the problem emerged after a 2015 survey by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs estimated 6,000 sexual assault kits were backlogged statewide.

Now, there are at least 8,964 sexual assault kits that remain untested in the state, either backlogged at a Washington State Patrol crime lab or sitting in police evidence rooms across the state.

As of July 10, 3,774 are backlogged at the state patrol, which considers a kit backlogged if it has been submitted to the crime lab and has not been tested within 30 days of arrival. It’s unknown how many kits are still in the process of being tested or analyzed at the lab.

As of Aug. 23, there were 5,296 untested kits sitting in evidence rooms. That number comes from a one-time statewide inventory being conducted by the state Attorney General’s office. The office was awarded a $3 million Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, half of which is dedicated to testing older kits.

Officials began inventorying kits in June, and as of last week 90 percent of the 207 law enforcement agencies statewide had completed their inventories.

At least 284 of those untested kits come from Yakima County. The state patrol reported in July that 164 of the area’s kits were backlogged. The Yakima County Sheriff’s Office estimated it has more than 120 untested kits, the oldest of which dates to 1994.

The surveyed law enforcement agencies in the county — Yakima County Sheriff’s Office and Grandview, Granger, Mabton, Moxee, Sunnyside, Tieton, Toppenish, Union Gap, Wapato, Yakima and Zillah police departments — have all submitted their inventories, but total numbers are not yet available.

Establishing priorities

The backlog stems from decisions made by police not to send in every kit for testing. In previous years, if they determined a crime was not committed, there was no further investigation. In some cases, victims asked for officials not to test their kits.

In still other cases, kits were not sent to the lab when the identity of the suspect and victim were known and both said that an sexual incident had occurred, but one said it was rape while the other said it was consensual sex.

As the FBI’s DNA database — known as CODIS — evolved since it began in 1998, that mentality changed. Police agencies started getting more matches from the database and realized that by not submitting all kits, they weren’t picking up sexual assault trends because DNA information wasn’t in the system.

“We have some very dangerous people that have remained in the community because we haven’t tested the kits,” Orwall said.

The state now breaks sexual assault kits into three categories, which can be referred to as old, emergent and non-emergent.

Old kits are those created before Orwall’s July 2015 legislation.The other two categories involve new kits taken after July 2015.

Emergent kits are those attached to active investigations, upcoming court dates or public safety risks. Non-emergent kits are the kind that police would not have previously submitted.

‘It’s not enough’

While the categories are designed to help prioritize kit testing and distinguish between different types of kits, it creates a problem for non-emergent kits.

When police have a suspect in custody or upcoming court dates, those sexual assault kits are placed higher on the list of kits to be tested because of the timeliness aspect. Because non-emergent kits often lack that impetus, they end up lower on the list and may remain there as emergent kits are prioritized in front of them

“It’s a catch-22,” said Kim Foley, a Comprehensive Healthcare victim advocate in Yakima. “We’ll press charges when the kit gets analyzed but when there’s no charges, there’s no emphasis on getting the kit analyzed.”

That means it takes longer and longer for non-emergent kits to be completed. And turnaround time has grown longer for all kits than it was in 2014, when it was 80 days from when they got into state patrol custody to when they were completed.

Now, turnaround times are 127 days for emergent kits, 367 days for old kits and 613 days for non-emergent kits. That’s nearly two years from the time a kit is submitted to when it is completed, time during which DNA entered in CODIS could have helped identify a suspect in the person’s case.

Part of the problem is a lack of resources for the state patrol, which has five labs that do DNA testing. Of its 50 full-time forensic scientists, just 10 are dedicated to testing sexual assault kits.

The volume of new kits is so high that old kits are being sent to Sorenson Forensics, a private testing lab in Salt Lake City, Utah, for DNA testing and then returned to State Patrol for analysis and input into CODIS.

“It’s not enough,” Orwall said. “My job is not only to make sure the old kits get tested, but to make sure this never happens again.”

‘State of shock’

While the upgraded system is a concrete step toward empowering victims, knowing where a kit is in the process is different from that process being completed.

To address that, in the three years since Orwall’s initial bill became law, other legislation has been passed to fund a study on increasing the availability of sexual assault nurse examiners and providing victim-centered, trauma-informed training to law enforcement.

Like Sara, many survivors have assumed that getting a sexual assault kit done would provide evidence to help advance their case. But the inefficiencies in the criminal justice system can further traumatize them. In Sara’s case, it further complicated her life at a time where she was still dealing with the effects of her 2005 rape.

“I’d lie in bed all night staring at the ceiling; I couldn’t sleep for months,” Sara said. “I was so traumatized and in a state of shock. I thought nothing is going to be the same after that.”

She said at that point, she was mentally preparing for her whole life to be ruined.

“If I could, I would change the amount of time it takes to get this ... done,” Sara said. “It’s so hard to have a case drag on so long; I can’t move on with my life.”

Orwall said one of the next steps is to do a public service announcement. She said they need to figure out the best way to speak with survivors to notify them of the new tracking system, including victim advocates as part of the conversation to not retraumatize those survivors

“We need to apologize at the state level for what happened,” Orwall said. “It’s not an easy fix; we want them to know that we’re committed to making this right.”

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