Passage of a sexual survivor bill in the Missouri Senate moves the state forward in the effort to prosecute cases of rape and sexual assault and test the backlog of rape kits necessary to bolster evidence in those cases.
Senate Bill 569, sponsored by state Sen. Andrew Koenig, R-Manchester, was advanced recently and sent to the House. The bill is intended to reform the handling, tracking and processing of Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence (SAFE) testing kits.
"Even in the midst of this global pandemic, we cannot forget the victims of sexual violence," Koenig said in a statement. "Their voices have been silenced for too long. Today, their voices are finally being heard. Now, it’s the responsibility of the House to get this legislation to the governor’s desk to become law."
Reforms in the handling of sexual assault test kits and cases began last year after the Missouri Attorney General's Office found that more than 6,000 untested sexual assault kits were stored away in the state. That number represents about 90% of the backlogged kits in the state that have languished untested.
And there could be even more, Koenig said.
"There are thousands of untested SAFE kits sitting in hospitals and police departments across the state, and each one represents an individual who deserves to have their kit tested and case investigated," Koenig said.
In Southwest Missouri, the Joplin Police Department was named a hub to collect untested kits and forward them a few at a time to a state lab for testing. Kits were brought to Joplin police from 11 area departments, such as those of Neosho and Carthage, and the Jasper, Newton and McDonald county sheriff's departments.
"We sent 11 kits off in January to be tested, and that dropped the number pending," Joplin Chief Sloan Rowland said. "We were waiting for the next round to be tested in February or March, and then COVID-19 hit and put a hold on it."
The department still has 32 to send off when the state can provide the funding to pay for testing them.
There are many reasons kits have not been tested. Lack of adequate funding has been a long-standing issue. Some kits, such as those for victims who don't want to be identified or don't want to identify the person who assaulted them, aren't tested by the state. The state also doesn't test kits collected in cases where investigations obtained confessions or a positive identification of the suspect.
"It has never been that we just didn't send them" for testing, Rowland said.
"Obviously, we want to get these kits reduced, and that's the reason we served as a hub and volunteered to continue serving as a hub," the police chief previously said.
The bill also contains enumerates rights for sexual assault survivors.
“Too often, rape victims do not receive the justice they deserve. That is why, in 2016, the federal Survivors' Bill of Rights Act was signed into law, establishing for the first time statutory rights in federal code for survivors of sexual assault and rape. Since that time, states have been encouraged to pass sexual assault survivor rights in state law with the goal of all 50 states," said Jennifer Carter Dochler, public policy director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.
"If passed and signed this year, Missouri would be the 27th state to do so," she said. "Regardless if a victim decides to get a forensic exam or participate in the criminal justice process, their right to do so without pressure or retaliation should be codified in statute."