Orange County continues to struggle processing a backlog of sexual assault evidence kits that were collected from victims, yet haven’t been tested to identify their possible attackers.
The backlog stood at over 1,200 untested kits early last year, when DA Todd Spitzer’s office hired a lab to process all of them by the end of next month.
That timeline will not be met, DA officials said last week, noting 519 of the kits still need to be tested by Bode Cellmark Forensics.
Citing delays in lab materials during the pandemic, Spitzer and county supervisors are giving the lab another nine months to complete the work – saying the lab has now picked up its pace.
“During the pandemic, there were shortages – both the inability of technicians to go into their labs, that caused a backlog – and there was a supply chain problem,” Spitzer told supervisors last week.
“We are 100% on track. It was only a delay that was brought by an act of God, essentially: a supply chain problem. And there will be no delay whatsoever,” he said.
While the extension gives the lab until June of next year, DA officials said they expected the work to wrap up by the end of this year.
Spitzer told Voice of OC the backlog work has led to the prosecution of a man for alleged rape during a home burglary in 1995.
Megan Mallon, a counselor who works with victims of sexual violence, said it’s crucial for the kits to be tested, adding that not doing so “invalidates someone’s experiences.”
“Society doesn’t tend to believe victims when they come forward and more women are victims. I think not processing these kits speaks to a bigger issue about suppressing women,” said Mallon, a community counseling director with the nonprofit Mariposa Women & Family Center.
Her colleague Jessica Viera is a counslor who accompanies sexual assault victims during forensic exams at hospitals.
“It is incredibly important for survivors to feel worth the time, cost, and effort it takes to process those kits and then to be able to receive the validation that their experience happened and was recognized and believed,” Viera said.
“The process is extremely invasive and yet they continue with the process to reclaim their power and make a formal statement that something happened, and it was wrong,” she added.
Viera said the backlog makes survivors feel abandoned.
“Not processing these kits continues to silence them and is re-traumatizing through the perpetuation of mistrust in our systems and society; the forensic exam was provided by the system and society as a stated outlet for them to speak-up and speak-out, but the message they receive is that the process, the system and society lies,” she said.
“Not processing the kits states their voice does not matter, should be silenced, and they are not of value.”
The rape kits are being processed by a private vendor, Virginia-based Bode Cellmark Forensics, under contract with the DA’s Office. It’s funded mainly by a nearly $2 million grant OC prosecutors obtained from the California Department of Justice, which also funds efforts by the Orange County Crime Lab to clear the backlog.
So far, the testing of backlogged kits has led to more than 100 DNA matches with people in existing law enforcement DNA databases, according to DA officials — though a match alone doesn’t necessarily lead to a prosecution.
Four years ago, county supervisors approved an extra two forensic scientists for the Sheriff’s Department’s crime lab to help clear the rape kit backlog.
The extra help came after Spitzer, who was then a county supervisor, said the county shouldn’t tolerate rape kit backlogs and pressed then-Sheriff Sandra Hutchens with questions about it.
Hutchens said the national recommendation is for rape kits to be processed within 30 days, and that the Sheriff’s Department crime lab was taking 30 to 45 days.
At Spitzer’s request, she said it would take another two forensic scientists to get the processing time down to a maximum of 30 days
Supervisors agreed to add the two additional scientists to the Sheriff’s Department budget starting in July 2017, at a total of $200,000 a year.
Two years later, in mid-2019, Orange County still had a backlog of 1,598 sexual assault evidence kits, about 80% of which were at least several years old, according to a state audit released last summer.
The agency with the largest number of untested kits, by far, was the Santa Ana Police Department, with 540.
That’s more than twice as many as the 266 untested kits at the police department for Anaheim, which has the most residents in Orange County.
Nick Gerda covers county government for Voice of OC. You can contact him at email@example.com.