Can $2 million cover Minnesota’s 3,500 untested rape kits?

Some rape kits sit untested on the shelf for decades.

Some rape kits sit untested on the shelf for decades. Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

Here’s some good news: Minnesota was just awarded $2 million to handle untested rape kits languishing in precinct offices all over the state.

The bad news: We are already way, way behind. A survey taken in 2015 found there were some 3,500 untested rape kits between Minnesota’s 171 police agencies. Some of them have been sitting untouched on shelves for decades.

The term “rape kit” refers to the evidence collected during a sexual assault forensic exam. The kits are boxes labeled with the names of victims, filled with sealed plastic bags of hair, skin, and other DNA evidence, photographs of their battered bodies, and the promise of justice someday being served.

While the vast majority of our state’s jurisdictions only have 10 or fewer untested kits, there are also counties like Anoka, where the Sheriff’s Department has nearly 500 untested kits in its property room. Anoka will be the first to benefit from this grant.

But that $2 million grant is about $800,000 short of what the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault and its partners originally requested. Coalition Spokesperson Kim Mongoven says the original amount included funding for “protocol development” and “trainings for various law enforcement entities.” Those plans have been scaled back in light of the funding shortfall.

Training and protocol might sound secondary to getting the kits tested, but it’s a crucial part of solving this backlog – and preventing it from happening again. To address each of these cold cases involves understanding storage procedures, notifying survivors how the testing is going, training health care providers, cross-checking with other jurisdictions and Minnesota’s 11 tribal nations, and Minnesota’s complicated, county-by-county billing system. Not having a clear, unified process for testing kits is how we wound up in this predicament.

Minnesota has been grappling with its inability to systematically test these kits in a timely manner since 2005 or so, and we’re far from the only state. The Washington Post reported that last year, there were 6,000 untested kits just in Houston, along with 11,000 in Los Angeles, Detroit, and Memphis, and 17,000 in New York City.

The Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault is going to keep applying for that money. What’s less clear is what happens after that. Will it be possible to find a way to handle these kits in such a way that we don’t fall tragically behind again? And how will survivors react to new updates on crimes they’ve had to bury for decades?

The important thing, Coalition Director Teri McLaughlin told WCCO, is that survivors know someone is doing something. Along with receiving the grant, this year, Minnesota also enacted a law giving survivors the right to know the testing status of their rape kits. Even if they have to wait a while to get results, at least they won’t have to wait in the dark.

“...They get to see some process toward justice,” she said. “They can see we’re actually responding to them.”