New system lets survivors track rape kits

Law will also expedite crime lab processing

MASSACHUSETTS IS ROLLING out a new system that will allow survivors of sexual assault to track online the processing of evidence collected from them at hospitals following an assault. A survivor will now be able to see if their so-called rape kit has been sent from a hospital to a police agency to a crime lab for testing. 

Rape kits include bodily evidence collected at the hospital from a survivor of sexual assault, which can be used in the prosecution of a case. 

“This empowers victims and survivors,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, who chairs the Governor’s Council to Address Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence. Polito said the new system, which was demonstrated to the council on Wednesday, will give survivors the knowledge that their evidence is secure and tracked.  

“It allows them the opportunity to think about what they want to do, is this something they want to engage law enforcement around,” Polito said. “Or, in time, if they feel more empowered to take it to that level, they will have the evidence secured in a safe place here in Massachusetts to be able to make that decision.” 

The initiative, required by the state’s 2018 criminal justice reform law, comes as states throughout the country are struggling with backlogs of untested rape kits. 

Nationally, the Joyful Heart Foundation, an advocacy group for survivors of sexual assault, identified 225,000 untested rape kits sitting in law enforcement storage facilities and launched a campaign in 2016 to end that backlog.  

In Massachusetts, a state audit of rape kits was conducted in 2015 but was only able to collect information from 75 of about 350 municipal police agencies.  

In June 2019, MassLive.com reported that an audit by the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security identified 387 untested rape kits, but that audit did not include Boston or Bristol County, and advocates from the Joyful Heart Foundation questioned the accuracy of that number. 

Polito said Wednesday that the state had identified a backlog of 418 untested kits. Of those, 264 were able to be tested.  

Polito said the new system, called Track Kit, is allowing the state to move from “a backlog of kits that were in random places and a random state of care” to a much better place in terms of knowing where evidence is and how long it takes to be tested, and giving survivors that information. 

Debra Robbin, executive director of Jane Doe Inc, a coalition that works to address domestic and sexual violence, said Massachusetts has not had the same backlog of rape kits that has been a problem in other states. But she said the advantage of the new system is that it allows survivors to have information about their kits for the first time. “This is really to create a system in which to keep track of kits and the status of where they are so that if a victim chooses to use the criminal justice system, they will have some autonomy about knowing what is happening with their situation, with their evidence,” Robbin said. 

January 29, 2020

Matt Moran of the state’s information technology department demonstrates a new rape kit tracking system. (Photo by Shira Schoenberg)

The tracking system, created by a company that developed similar systems in Arizona, Michigan, Washington, Nevada, and Texas, will assign each rape kit a number. Hospitals, police departments, and crime labs will all use the system to track the progress of each kit. The system will send reminders to each agency when deadlines set by state law are approaching – for example to pick up a kit or to test a kit. Survivors will be given a card in the hospital, which includes a website and a user name and password, which they can use to track the progress of their kit. 

The state rolled out the tracking system January 6 in four counties — Norfolk, Bristol, Plymouth, and the Cape and Islands. It will roll out the system next week in Worcester County and the four Western Massachusetts counties. By February 24, it will be implemented statewide. State officials say the rollout by region gives them time to train hospital and police officials in each area and work out any kinks. 

So far in the initial four counties, 90 medical facility users and 430 law enforcement users have logged on to the tracking system. 

The total cost for the five-year Track-Kit contract is about $1 million, which includes implementation, licensing, tech support, and training for users and administrators. 

In addition to requiring the state to take an inventory of all untested rape kits and create a tool through which survivors could track their rape kits, the 2018 criminal justice reform law also set deadlines for law enforcement to collect and test rape kits. Hospitals now have to notify the police within 24 hours of collecting a rape kit. The police have up to 10 business days to collect the evidence and submit it to a crime lab, which then has 30 calendar days in which to test the kit. To address any backlog, any kit currently sitting untested will have to be tested within 180 days. 

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

The State Police Crime Lab has hired 28 more scientists to be able to meet the 30-day deadline for testing evidence. 

Elizabeth Dineen, executive director of the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, which provides domestic violence and sexual assault services, said the new system signals to survivors that the state is “really trying to empower them and to encourage them to pursue prosecution so that people who commit rapes are held accountable and convicted.”