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Home / Articles / Ending Domestic Violence / How Many Rape Kits Are Actually Tested?

How Many Rape Kits Are Actually Tested?

End the Backlog, a nonprofit started by a Law & Order: SVU star, has led 49 states to create rape kit reforms

Survivor of sexual assault receives rape kit

This story was originally published in 2019. It was updated in 2024.

When last checked in with the national nonprofit End the Backlog in 2019, there were still at least 225,000 untested rape kits sitting in police, crime labs or other storage facilities across the U.S. The nonprofit was working hard to change that, thanks in large part to Detective Olivia Benson. Or, more accurately, her Law and Order: SVU real-life counterpart, actress Mariska Hargitay. The actress founded the Joyful Heart Foundation in 2004 in response to the influx of letters from fans who spoke of their own sexual assaults and how much her show resonated with them. The nonprofit’s goal is to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse by providing unique avenues of support and resources for survivors and advocates.  

In 2010, they began End the Backlog which strives to do exactly what it sounds like—a full-force effort to get rape kits off shelves and use them for their intended purpose—to catch perpetrators and put them behind bars.

As of today, the nonprofit estimates the number of untested rape kits in the U.S. is closer to 46,000— a testament to the relentless work of those at the Foundation to create more accountability for rapists. However, by all accounts, that number is still too high and likely, even higher considering only 44 states reported and some may not even know where all their rape kits wound up. The nonurgency with which these violent crimes against (mostly) women perpetuated (mostly) by men are investigated is something that End the Backlog says needed to change decades ago.

Rape Kits Represent Bravery After Trauma 

“These kinds of changes happen slowly, but they happen,” says Burcu Sagiroglu, Policy and Advocacy Associate with the Foundation. “Every single [survivor] went through the process because they thought their kit was going to be tested. And when they learned it wasn’t, they were heartbroken. The backlog creates a disbelief in the system and hinders other survivors from reporting.”

After a sexual assault, a survivor has the choice whether or not to go to a hospital and submit a rape kit, also known as a forensic exam. It’s not a walk in the park, especially directly following a violating assault. The exam can take from four to 10 hours. A survivor’s clothing is taken as evidence. Biological evidence is collected on swabs from all areas of a survivor’s body. Injuries are examined and treated. Photographs are taken. It’s important to note that a survivor can decline any part of the exam at any point. 

Once the evidence is collected, it’s picked up by law enforcement and sent to a state crime lab for testing. This is often where the test lingers indefinitely. But when tested, the DNA is entered into CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) and can match with a perpetrator who has previously been arrested. Even without a match, the additional evidence will be vital in finding and prosecuting the rapist.  

Ending the Backlog, One Law at a Time

In 2016, End the Backlog has helped to pass 130 bills in 46 states to address rape kit reform. All but one state has now passed reform bills related to testing of rape kits. Maine is the only hold-out, says Sagiroglu. 

“Local politics, I guess,” she says, when asked why Maine wasn’t as eager as the rest of the country to find justice for rape survivors. “We managed to get a bill introduced and pass both chambers, but the governor didn’t end up signing it into law along with 34 other bills.” 

Maine Gov. Janet Mills told the media that she “objected to the additional spending,” but that she supported a limited pilot program in two counties that would establish a tracking system and inventory for kits, though it has not yet been implemented. 

Meanwhile, other states have either passed bills to allocate funding or applied for and received grants from the Office of Violence Against Women to assist in clearing their rape kit backlogs. Some $231 million has been allotted to test more than 156,000 rape kits in the last decade. 

Joyful Heart Foundation was also a part of the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative in 2015 that provided grants to communities to inventory untested rape kits, analyze and investigate the findings, prosecute offenders and also support survivors. The results have spoken for themselves—more than 15,7000 CODIS matches led to the arrest of 8,200 serial violent offenders and 2,200 serial sex offenders. 

One City’s Cleared Backlog Captured 253 Rapists

In 2009, Prosecutor Kym Worthy of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office in Detroit, Mich., was fed up. During a routine inventory of the Michigan State Police Department, over 11,000 untested rape kits were found in a storage facility dating back as far as the 1980s. 

“At the time, my thought was, ‘Only in Detroit.’ I had no idea that anyone would take evidence of a violent crime and just stock it somewhere—that was hard for me to fathom,” Worthy says. But after a quick Google search of untested rape kits, she realized it wasn’t just her city. 

“It popped up that this was happening all over the country.”

Worthy was a woman on a mission to get every single rape kit tested. 

“I wanted to bring justice to these women, as well as some men and also children. And I wanted to make sure this didn’t happen again.”

Worthy’s office applied for and received a grant from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women to begin testing all of the rape kits and compiling a report on their findings. They built a database from scratch because none of the victims’ information had ever been entered electronically. It took months. They hired detectives from outside the Detroit police department, or who were retired, to begin the heavy lifting of investigating each case. In the end, they completed 5,371 investigations and convicted 253 perpetrators. 

The kits that didn’t result in an investigation may have been because the defendant or plaintiff was no longer alive, or the survivor chose not to prosecute, Worthy explains. And for so many others, finally, their day in court. Of those survivors who saw justice, Worthy says she believes they finally feel seen, heard and believed. She hopes she restored, in some small way, their trust in the criminal justice system.

“We were among the first states to look at a tracking system. So now, the way it’s supposed to work, anytime there’s a rape kit done anywhere in the state, it’s entered into a database. Also, the victim has a portal to see where their rape kit is in the process,” Worthy says. New legislation also put in place time limits for how long it can take to get the rape kit to the crime lab for testing. 

“We haven’t, as far as I know, had a stockpile since,” Worthy says.

If You’re a Victim of Sexual Assault

While it can be disheartening to hear about some victims waiting years if not decades for justice, more and more states are now being proactive about testing rape kits, thanks to End the Backlog and advocates’ dedication. Getting a rape kit done is a personal choice, but the evidence collected could be essential to catching and prosecuting a rapist.

If you have been sexually assaulted, call 911 or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE. A counselor can talk you through steps to report the assault and help you find local support resources. 

And remember, rapists are not just strangers. An intimate partner, including a spouse, can rape and it is illegal. “Grey rape” and “stealing” are also two terms to know when it comes to sexual assault that aren’t talked about as often. 

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