Maryland gets federal funding to help test and track rape kits

When Catherine Becket came forward in 2016 to ask Baltimore County police about a sexual assault she had reported to them, she was shocked to learn her rape kit was not only never tested, but that it had also been destroyed.

Her story helped prompt a number of state reforms in 2017, including legislation that set up a committee to look at funding for expanded rape kit testing. This month, the Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Policy and Funding Committee pulled in a substantial award — a $2.6 million federal grant from the Department of Justice. It will go toward testing rape kits, creating a better evidence tracking system and hiring survivor advocates.

The Sun previously reported that Maryland had previously missed out on the federal grant program despite having thousands of untested kits. A January 2017 audit by the Maryland Attorney General’s Office found about 3,700 untested rape kits across the state.

One reason Maryland didn’t receive the federal funding was that almost no law enforcement agency had applied. Only Baltimore County police applied, but the agency was rejected. The county was hoping to receive funds to test evidence in about 2,000 decades-old rape cases.

Baltimore County police spokesperson Shawn Vinson said that the $2.6 million grant is being handled by the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention and that they are waiting to see if the county will receive any funds from it.

Many police agencies did not apply for funding from the grant before because they didn't believe they had a backlog of kits that needed to be tested. Among reasons they cited: the identity of the alleged perpetrator was already known; investigators believed the accusation to be false; or the victim chose not to participate in a prosecution.

A task force convened by Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh concluded last year that nearly all kits should be tested. The panel recommended statewide policies to guide local agencies.

Experts say nearly all kits all should be tested, even those where the offender is known. They say doing so could help identify a serial offender.

The committee is now expected to determine uniform standards for rape kit testing across the state. Del. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat who attends the committee meetings and sponsored the reform legislation in 2017, said they are getting close to a consensus about which rape kits should be tested and hope to have something ready before the 2019 legislative session.

When they do, police will have more kits to test. The earlier reform legislation also included a requirement for law enforcement agencies to retain rape kits for 20 years. Baltimore County Police had been discarding some kits as early as one year after evidence was collected.

A Sun Investigation found that Becket’s rape kit was among 250 that had been destroyed by police departments in the Baltimore region over the previous five years without being tested.

A spokesperson for the state attorney general’s office said it has completed a recent survey of the agencies with the most untested rape kits, but did not yet have final numbers to report.

crentz@baltsun.com

twitter.com/cdrentz

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