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Test Every Kit

By Stephanie Horton

As a warning to our listeners, the following story discusses sexual assault.  DNA evidence collected after a sexual assault is known as a rape kit. Rape kits are supposed to be tested immediately. When they aren’t – it creates a backlog. New York City was one of the first states to clear its backlog in 2003. But nationally a quarter of a million rape kits sit in storage, waiting to be tested. Stephanie Horton reports on the stories behind these rape kits.

HORTON 1: While walking back to her apartment in 1993, then-20-year-old Natasha Alexenko was raped at gunpoint. After the assault she went to the hospital and a nurse collected evidence. This exam is commonly known as a rape kit. It involves swabs of every orifice. And it can take anywhere from 4-6 hours.

ALEXENKO: It’s a very invasive experience. So after this horrible

assault you kind of have to be invaded for lack of a better word.

HORTON 2: After Alexenko got the exam she went home. She had no idea her rape kit would sit in storage at the NYPD for 9 years.

ALEXENKO: I had no reason to believe that they would put me through that ordeal and then not do anything with the kit. It just didn’t even enter my mind.

HORTON 3: Alexenko’s kit wasn’t tested immediately but it was eventually tested. They didn’t have a suspect; they had DNA evidence. In cases like that they can indict the DNA profile. Meaning if the man who assaulted Alexenko was found he could be charged with rape. He assaulted a police officer in Las Vegas soon after the indictment and sentenced to 44 to 107 years in prison. Alexenko’s story of convicting her attacker is the exception.

ALEXENKO:  I think about everything he did, all the people he hurt. I think about how we could have caught him sooner and it just breaks my heart.

HORTON 4: Today in New York kits are tested immediately by criminalists such as Jocelyn Costello.  She works at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. She explains what goes into extracting DNA evidence.

COSTELLO: So every envelope is marked with which orifice they come from. Let me grab the first one.

HORTON 5: Costello is sporting a white lab coat and purple latex gloves. She stands next to a table covered in 12 white envelopes and picks one up.

COSTELLO: So this one is the oral swabs and smears. The nurse who is taking the sexual assault kit will swab the inner cheeks. [ACT CONT UNDER NARR]

HORTON 6: Costello drags out the long cotton swabs from one of the envelopes. Each one is clearly marked with the name of an orifice. Vaginal, Anal, buccal, and fingernail scrapings just to name a few. Costello says it takes an average of two weeks to process a rape kit and according to city reports up to $1,500. Even with all of this work most rape kits don’t even yield a DNA profile. But they are one more step in trying to convict a sex crime.

HORTON 7: Costello teaches young aspiring criminalists how to process DNA in this very lab. She says it’s important to remind her students what these these kits represent.

COSTELLO: It represents a voice. It represents the voice of a victim saying “you know what this is the worst day that I had but I’m going to get the last say”.

HORTON 8: In many places across the US that voice goes silent. Which is why ending the nationwide backlog has been the main goal of groups advocating for the rights of sexual assault victims. Ilse Knecht is the Advocacy Director of the Joyful Heart Foundation – a group pushing to “End the Backlog”   

KNECHT: For survivors who leave the hospital after an exam most of them never hear again where their kit is. Even if they try to find out. They reach a dead end most of the time.

HORTON 9: Knecht says these long silences can impact a survivor’s mental health.

KNECHT: I’ve actually had conversations with survivors who have said when I didn’t hear what happened  // They blamed themselves. They thought maybe I wasn’t a good enough witness.

HORTON 10: Even though New York City cleared out its rape kits in 2003. Nationally an estimated 250,000 sit untested. Which is why in 2015 Manhattan DA Cy Vance Jr pledged $38 million to help clear the national backlog. Over the 4 year span they have funded the testing  55,000 rape kits across the US, it only led to 56 convictions. Alexenko says every conviction matters

ALEXENKO: I know it doesn’t seem like a lot but to the survivor that’s like so much [laughs] // even one arrest even putting one person’s mind at ease is worth it.

HORTON 11: Alexenko says the backlog is just a symptom of larger issue. She thinks talking about these issues is the first step.

ALEXENKO: It’s a crime that’s not taken seriously. It’s a crime we don’t want to talk about openly. It’s a crime that we’ve only started feeling comfortable enough to share the details of.

HORTON 12: Recently more survivors do feel comfortable sharing the details of their attacks. But these rape kits represent only a fraction of sexual assault survivors.

SOC: Stephanie Horton Columbia Radio News

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