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West Virginia tracks sexual assault evidence

Like many states, West Virginia has been working to improve its investigation of sexual assault cases -- starting with ensuring that evidence from victims gets submitted to the state’s crime lab. One of the state's problems was that it didn’t have a good way to track the evidence that been collected from victims at the hospital, which meant it often didn’t know whether evidence had submitted for analysis.

Sexual assault evidence collection kits are distributed by the West Virginia State Police Forensic Laboratory to authorized health care providers around the state. Information about what facilities ordered the kits was kept in a spreadsheet. Unfortunately, there was no record of whether a facility used a kit, whether the kit was sent to local law enforcement officials or whether local police sent it back to the lab for forensic testing.

“We were running into a situation where [the state crime lab was] mailing out way more kits than they were getting back in a year, so I think that’s what made us want to work on the development of a more advanced tracking system,” said Erica Turley, a research specialist with the West Virginia Division of Justice and Community Services.  Her office worked with the Forensic Lab, West Virginia Interactive, the West Virginia Foundation for Rape Information and Services and Marshall University Forensic Science Center to build an online system.

Of the 500 to 600 kits the Forensic Lab sends out every year, it gets back around 250, Turley said. This discrepancy could be caused by hospitals that don’t use all the kits they’ve ordered or because law enforcement doesn’t submit all the kits it gets for testing -- in cases where the charges have been dropped or when officials don’t think the evidence will advance the investigation, for example.

Nevertheless, there is a backlog of untested kits. The state received federal grant money to inventory the untested kits and has found more than 1,000 kits so far, officials said.

With the new online Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit Information System, each kit sent to a hospital is assigned an ID.  Information about where it is being sent and who sent it is also collected. Hospitals can log into the system to see the kit IDs assigned to their location and alert the lab when a kit has been used and where it has been sent.

An additional feature of the system is that it allows examiners at the Forensic Lab to evaluate the quality of the evidence and pass that information back to the hospitals’ examiners along with the test results. That information will help the state identify weaknesses in evidence collection procedures and improve for training for hospital staff.

Not all hospitals are using the system at this point, but the state is working to have it implemented everywhere.  Future development may include a login for law enforcement officials. Sarah Brown, a program specialist with the Division of Justice and Community Services, told GCN the hope is to have all hospitals on the system by July 1. When hospitals ask for new kits after that date they will be asked about the location of the kits previously sent.  If the hospital can’t provide a location then the state will still work with the hospital to provide new kits, Brown said.

The new system won’t be able to find untested kits, but the goal is to eliminate untracked kits in the future. As the state considers different approaches for ensuring that all sexual assault kits are tested, the numbers from the new system will provide guidance in those decisions.

One such effort is a bill introduced by state Sen. Mike Woelfel (D-Cabell) would help expedite the DNA testing by outsourcing some of the work.

The Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit Information System was a finalist in the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council 2017 Igniting Innovation awards.

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a reporter/producer at GCN.

Before joining GCN, Leonard worked as a local reporter for The Smithfield Times in southeastern Virginia. In his time there he wrote about town council meetings, local crime and what to do if a beaver dam floods your back yard. Over the last few years, he has spent time at The Commonwealth Times, The Denver Post and WTVR-CBS 6. He is a graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University, where he received the faculty award for print and online journalism.

Leonard can be contacted at mleonard@gcn.com or follow him on Twitter @Matt_Lnrd.

Click here for previous articles by Leonard.


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