Government & Politics

Kansas Bureau of Investigation reports on ways to improve sexual assault prosecutions

An initiative by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation aimed to identify factors that led to an accumulation of 2,220 unsubmitted sexual assault kits.
An initiative by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation aimed to identify factors that led to an accumulation of 2,220 unsubmitted sexual assault kits.

The Kansas Bureau of Investigation recently concluded one portion of an initiative aimed at better serving survivors of sexual assault in the state.

The Kansas Sexual Assault Kit Initiative began in 2014 and aimed to identify factors that led to an accumulation of 2,220 unsubmitted sexual assault kits. The agency identified four factors leading to the accumulation in a report published Tuesday: a lack of training and resources within the criminal justice system, a lack of policies addressing the issue and a lack of societal awareness.

Many of the kits were related to cases that were never prosecuted for a range of reasons that included law enforcement believing no crime had been committed, according to KBI Executive Officer Katie Whisman.

“The ultimate goal of the initiative is to prevent victimization by identifying more perpetrators of sexual assault, including serial offenders, while gaining justice for more victims and increasing public safety,” the KBI said in a release.

Of the 2,220 unsubmitted kits, Whisman said 2,001 have now been received by a forensic laboratory for testing. Testing is complete on 522 kits.

Whisman added that 117 DNA profiles were uploaded to the Combined DNA Indexing System (CODIS), which can identify serial offenders by linking different crimes. More than 50 “hits” have been generated so far.

“A CODIS hit forensically links an offender to crime scene evidence, in this case the sexual assault kit evidence,” Whisman said. “This information can be used as an investigative lead by law enforcement. ... That said, decisions regarding additional investigative follow-up, contacting the victim and whether or not to pursue criminal charges are left up to the respective jurisdictions.”

The findings from the initiative will also serve to prevent another accumulation of unsubmitted kits, and a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice is helping to reduce the number of unsubmitted kits across the state.

The Kansas City Police Department received a similar grant for more than $300,000 and has tested 256 kits with the funding.

The initiative is about more than testing unsubmitted kits, Whisman said.

“We have to also understand and identify solutions to factors that contributed to that accumulation, and until we do that, sexual assault will continue to be misunderstood, the value of sex assault evidence will not be realized and victims will continue to be underserved by the criminal justice system,” she said.

The report included recommendations for improving responses to sexual assault by law enforcement, prosecutors, victims advocates and sexual assault nurse examiners. One recommendation is for professionals in those areas to attend trainings on this topic, such as a program to be offered from February to September 2018 across the state.

“When responding officers and prosecutors have not been trained in trauma-informed practices, they fail to recognize signs of trauma in victims,” Whisman said. “That lack of understanding often makes victims feel they’re being questioned or not believed, which makes them withdraw from the process.”

In March, Kansas became the first state in the country to complete a statewide inventory of unsubmitted kits. The inventory was done with voluntary participation by law enforcement agencies in the state and informed the KBI’s findings published this week.

“The message this sends is that we recognize that sexual assault is a violent crime and when offenders are not held accountable for their actions, they’re left to reoffend,” Whisman said.

The Star’s Ian Cummings contributed to this story.

Max Londberg: 816-234-4378, @MaxLondberg

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