DES MOINES, Iowa — For years, hundreds of sexual assault kits went untested because the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation didn’t have the resources.
A pair of federal grants totaling $3 million allowed the Iowa Attorney General’s Office to begin addressing the backlog in 2015. It’s a project called the Iowa Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.
A survey of all police departments in Iowa found 4,275 sexual assault kits were submitted, but were never tested for DNA evidence.
It’s backlog that’s not surprising to people who advocate for sexual assault survivors, including Iowa Coalition Against Sexual Assault Executive Director Beth Barnhill.
“We have had cases delayed in the past and survivors have been told that their kits were lost or not being processed,” Barnhill said. “It’s really important that they have changed all of this so survivors know what’s actually happening.”
The lack of processing allowed several sex assault suspects to avoid arrest for years and victims waiting decades for justice.
“A practice for a long period of time among many local law enforcement agencies to simply not submit those kits for DNA analysis for a variety of reasons,” Commissioner Stephan Bayens, with the Iowa Department of Public Safety, said. “Really part of this program was to get past whatever those stumbling blocks were and to make sure they were all coming in for testing.”
Over the six-year project, the grant money funded testing for 1,606 of the kits and has led to arrests involving sexual assaults against children. Not to mention, DNA from more than 290 newly tested kits matched profiles in the FBI database, CODIS.
The number of kits arriving at the DCI lab has jumped 87%, and the turnaround time has also been reduced from decades to weeks.
“As of this week, we’re down to about eight weeks for DNA,” Bayens said, “So we’ve gone from delaying justice to seeing justice being handed out swiftly.”
To avoid a future backlog, the state has launched a program called “Track Kit.” It allows sex assault victims to track the status of their kits from medical facilities to law enforcement to eventually the lab for analysis. Back in May, the state legislature approved a bill requiring law enforcement agencies, medical facilities, and county attorneys to use the “Track Kit” reporting system.
They are signs of progress for those who are continuing to advocate for survivors.
“This is a step towards making this part of it work, so it’s important,” Barnhill said.
Sexual assault survivors still waiting for information about their own test can get an update by calling the information line at 1-800-770-1650.