Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/chicago/news.aspx?id=220964
Story Retrieval Date: 10/20/2014 9:10:20 PM CST

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Chicago-based nonprofit seeks action on countless untested rape kits

by Jillian Singh
May 2, 2013


kit2

Cook County Sheriff Dept.

Rape kits from Robbins Police Department, in Cook County, Ill.

Julie Smolyansky recently launched a nonprofit organization to raise awareness and promote solutions for the high number of untested rape kits that remain in police departments across the country, specifically in Cook County.

Smolyansky, CEO of Lifeway Foods in Morton Grove, founded Test400k because she wanted to create discussion about these untested rape kits, which seem to be ignored by society.

"It’s estimated that there are 400,000 untested rape kits sitting in police department storage across the country,” Smolyansky said, referring to a Human Rights Watch report from a few years ago. “Some of these kits are 30 years old.”

“This is an extensive, pervasive problem,” Smolyansky said. “Every time a kit is not analyzed, the perpetrator is free to commit a crime over and over. Everyone is at risk.”

Test400k cannot handle the kits due to chain of custody. The nonprofit works with law-enforcement officials, such as Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, to send kits to public and private labs for testing.

Senior Adviser to Dart, Cara Smith, said Test400k and Smolyansky’s energy, passion and commitment to such a tremendous social injustice are invaluable.

“A law was put into effect in 2010 that requires all police departments in Illinois to disclose how many untested rape kits are in their possession and how many will be submitted and not submitted for testing,” Smith said. “One criterion for not submitting an untested rape kit is that it is no longer subject to a crime. This can be for reasons such as the victim recanting.”

Police departments that do not submit rape kits that they consider no longer subject to a crime are reminded of their accountability by Test400k, which asks for a more comprehensive review of why these kits supposedly not subject to a crime are not submitted for testing, Smith said.

In the South suburbs, both the Markham and Robbins police departments have recently submitted 100 untested kits to labs, Smith said.

Due to high volumes of untested rape kits being sent to labs at one time, some technology groups that are contracted with states or cities also work with individuals to offer discounted rates.

“As an outsider, this problem is shocking to learn,” said Mike Cariola, president and CEO of Bode Technology Group in Lorton, Va., which works with Test400k to offer discounted rates. “Here’s the technology that has the potential to do so much more, and there are all these untested kits. It doesn’t add up.”

To optimize its resources and impact, Smolyansky said Test400k asks the questions: “What if we do this? Is it legal? Is it more effective? What’s a better way to address this problem?”

“We need to renovate the kit itself,” Smolyansky said. “There should be some kind of scanning code that can track where the package is at any time. We order something on Amazon and we know where it is at any given moment, but sometimes we lose the most precious evidence in our state.”

As far as the reasons for these backlogs, Smolyansky said there are many, but none is really justifiable.

“Why is this really important evidence sitting there and being disregarded?” Smolyansky asked. “Are there gaps in procedure? Lack of accountability?

“We can claim budgetary problems, but the issue of rape is stigmatized. Women’s words are never counted. This backlog is symbolic of a bigger cultural issue.”

Christina Perez, director of the Women and Gender Studies program at Dominican University in River Forest, said: “This backlog shows sexual assault and rapes are not taken very seriously. We know that sexual assault and rape are underreported. The majority of victims, who are women, feel as if no one will take them seriously.

“This fear comes out of reality. Evidence is not even prioritized. This backlog of rape kits is part of a whole system that devalues women and their sexual autonomy,” Perez said.

“Women’s safety always comes last,” Smolyansky said. “We need to get angry and open our mouths.”