Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring announced Thursday that an additional 1,247 untested rape kits will be screened for evidence, part of a $3.4 million effort to clear a backlog of several thousand rape kits that have languished in local police departments for years.
The kits, collected by police departments between 2014 and 2016, will be screened under a $2 million federal grant meant to help the state eliminate its backlog.
A separate $1.4 million federal grant launched the process of clearing out more than 2,000 kits collected before 2014 — some going as far back as 25 years.
Combined, Herring said, the two rounds of testing mark a push by Virginia to leave behind an era when DNA evidence was collected from potential rape victims but, because of a lack of resources or police apathy, often went ignored.
“I think we really are turning the page from a time when these incidents were swept under the rug, were treated with suspicion,” Herring (D) said during a roundtable discussion in Fairfax County with first lady Dorothy McAuliffe, local police officials and victims’ advocates. “We’re really orienting ourselves toward a more trauma- and survivor-centered response that makes communities safer.”
The push for speedier testing in Virginia is part of a national effort to clear such backlogs and preserve the evidence in rape kits, including in Maryland.
Earlier this year, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) signed a law that will streamline an array of local policies on rape cases into one, more-cohesive approach.
Under the law, if a victim visits a medical professional to collect evidence for the rape kit but ultimately decides not to press charges, the kit will still be stored for at least two years. For cases that are reported, the evidence must be sent for analysis within 60 days.
With the federal grant money, Herring’s office will set up a statewide tracking system to keep additional test kits from falling through the cracks. His office also plans to hire a survivor-support specialist to help rape victims navigate the legal process.
At the roundtable discussion, Dorothy McAuliffe — who helped lead a state task force that recommended the new law — said the overall effort should allow victims to feel more confident about reporting allegations of rape to local police. Often, such cases go unreported because the victim istoo traumatized or does not trust local authorities to properly investigate the crime.
In more diverse communities like Fairfax — home to 142 untested rape kits gathered between 2014 and 2016 — language barriers can also come into play, authorities said.
Dorothy McAuliffe noted that the new round of testing has already resulted in 44 cases being reopened by local police departments.
“That’s what we really need to underscore,” the first lady said. “That the work is making a difference.”