RICHMOND — Months after Virginia discovered thousands of untested rape kits languishing across the state, Gov. Terry McAuliffe on Thursday signed into law new rules for the collection, storage and analysis of the critical evidence.
A state agency last year identified 2,902 untested “Physical Evidence Recovery Kits,” some going back three decades. Police departments with the most untested kits were Virginia Beach’s, with 455; Fairfax County’s, with 347; and Richmond’s, with 257, according to the December report.
“It’s our responsibility to provide certainty and ease the pain for women who are haunted by the fear their attackers could still be out there,” said McAuliffe (D), who signed the bill at the Richmond offices of the Virginia Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Action Alliance.
The event brought together unlikely partners in the crusade against sexual violence.
Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun), one of the most conservative members of the General Assembly who is frequently at odds with McAuliffe, sponsored the bill.
The bill “will save lives,” said Black, who added that he prosecuted rape cases as a military lawyer. “And it will protect many, many women from sexual assault, because what this does is it begins to link cases together. By linking cases together, you take the serial offenders off the street.”
Experts say rape kits containing DNA evidence are critical because they frequently help solve multiple crimes.
Black has often tangled on women’s health issues with the same advocates who offered tepid applause for him during the bill-signing event. They sighed audibly when he called first lady Dorothy McAuliffe “lovely” while praising her leadership on the issue.
“It is very difficult for a woman to go through this test after she’s been raped,” he said. “It’s the last thing she wants to do. To have her go through that trauma and then to turn around and have it sit is really a terrible thing.”
Black first raised the issue in the General Assembly a few years ago after discovering a pamphlet from Natasha Alexenko, founder of the Rape Kit Action Project, in a pile of papers on his desk. She flew in from New York to attend Thursday’s signing.
The law is intended to streamline the hodgepodge of policies followed by police departments, sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies, some of which have stored untested kits for decades.
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.
McAuliffe said that he legislation will double the number of tests performed each year and that his two-year budget includes $900,000 to hire six additional DNA examiners, he said.
Another bill sponsored by Black allows minors to consent to be tested over the objections of a parent, a critical option when the adult could be the perpetrator.
And Del. Eileen Filler-Corn (D-Fairfax) sponsored a bill that requires law enforcement to be trained in “trauma-informed responses” to people who report sexual violence. The measure was a recommendation of a task force, formed by McAuliffe, to combat sexual violence on college campuses. It was chaired by Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D).
Herring helped secure a $1.4 million grant last year to test Virginia’s accumulated kits. Virginia was one of more than 20 states awarded money through Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.’s $38 million initiative to reduce the national inventory of untested kits.
Virginia is one of about two dozen states that have performed statewide audits in recent years, according to Rebecca O’Connor, vice president for public policy at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. The total number of untested kits is difficult to track, but national estimates exceed 100,000.
“Once we get the backlog cleared out, this new bill should ensure that Virginia never finds itself in that situation again,” Herring said.
Kristine Hall, public policy director at the Virginia Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, said the bills are a significant first step.
“The certainty that evidence is going to be sent to a lab and analyzed is huge and helps to begin the process of restoring faith in a system that quite frankly has not worked really well for victims of sexual assault,” she said.