PEARL – A forensic clinic serving sexual assault survivors in central Mississippi has created a new evidence collection kit that aims to help survivors, law enforcement and prosecutors.
Bridge Forensic Clinic, which is operated by the Center for Violence Prevention, consulted with forensic experts, law enforcement and nurses to create a new evidence kit – commonly called a rape kit – which hasn’t been updated in over 15 years, according to the clinic.
A sexual assault survivor can choose to undergo a forensic medical exam to collect evidence, which can be used in a case and prosecution. A medical worker preserves evidence such as clothing and blood and photographs the person’s body for signs of bruising or injuries.
“Much of the healing of victims comes from results in the justice system,” said Sandy Middleton, executive director for Center for Violence Prevention.
Beth McCord, operations manager of the Bridge Forensic Clinic, led the process to update the rape kit.
The previous kit had 21 steps. The new one has nine. Some steps were able to be eliminated or consolidated due to changes in the lab that processes evidence from the kits and how the clinic’s nurses work with survivors.
“We don’t want to create any more trauma or cause any more trauma to them by doing this exam,” she said. “This exam is for (the survivor) as well as the law enforcement. We’re trying to help them provide these samples with hopes to get DNA back.”
McCord said the goal is for the kits to be manufactured by the end of the year and available for distribution in early 2023.
Bridge Forensic Clinic has three sexual assault nurse examiners including McCord who collect evidence for rape kits. The Center for Violence Prevention also has relationships with five local hospital emergency rooms, allowing SANE nurses to collect kit evidence there.
Last year, the clinic’s SANE nurses served about 230 people, which includes collecting evidence for rape kits, McCord said.
Between 2019 and 2021, statewide there were prosecutions for 20 rapes, 167 statutory rapes and 481 sexual assaults, according to statistics provided by the center.
Middleton said these numbers show Mississippi does not do a good job at prosecuting these kinds of cases and that there are likely more survivors who chose not to seek medical attention or report to the police.
In response to a continued rise in sexual assaults and a lack of prosecution of those crimes in the state, Bridge Forensic Clinic organized a kit review committee with the goal of making changes to the rape kit.
Evidence from a rape kit can be used if a survivor chooses to report a sexual assault to police. Law enforcement will bring the kit to the state crime lab for analysis. McCord said the wait can be between six to 12 months for results from a rape kit.
Nearly half of all states in the country have a backlog in testing and processing rape kits, according to End the Backlog.
That backlog exists for a number of reasons, including a lack of policies and protocols to test kits, a lack of training or gaps about sexual assault, a lack of resources and whether the perpatrator’s identity is known and outdated or unclear lab policies, according to the organization.
On Tuesday, McCord and Middleton said it is difficult to know how many untested rape kits there are in Mississippi because there is not a central place where they are stored. Kits are often housed in evidence storage of police departments and sometimes at hospitals.
“It’s hard to know where our backlogs are because we don’t know where our kits are,” Middleton said.
In 2019, the Associated Press reported there were 600 untested kits in Jackson.
Missisisppi and Maine are the only states that have not had comprehensive rape kit reform, according to a map by End the Backlog.
In the past several years, state lawmakers have introduced legislation about testing rape kits, but those bills failed.
Middleton hopes to see legislation that supports use of the new kits and ways for the center to continue to help survivors in the upcoming legislative session.