May 2, 2013; Medill Reports

Conversations in this sector focus so unrelentingly on innovation, sometimes we might forget that unless we monitor the implementation of hard-won legislative change, the effort will falter. In the realm of violence against women, Julie Smolyansky recently launched a nonprofit organization to raise awareness and promote solutions for the high number of untested rape kits that remain in police departments across the country, specifically in Cook County.

Julie Smolyansky is the CEO of Lifeway Foods in Morton Grove, Illinois, but she is also a certified rape counselor and now the founder of Test400k. The name refers to the number of untested rape kits that, according to a Human Rights Watch Report, are in storage at police departments around the country.

Some of those kits which cost $1,200 apiece to test are as many as three decades old. “This is an extensive, pervasive problem,” Smolyansky said. “Every time a kit is not analyzed, the perpetrator is free to commit a crime over and over. Everyone is at risk.”

Some of the lack of testing may be due to formally dropped cases, but south of Chicago, for instance, the Markham and Robbins police departments have each recently sent 100 untested kits to labs according to Cara Smith who is a Senior Adviser to Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. Smith said that the external advocacy is important. “A law was put into effect in 2010 that requires all police departments in Illinois to disclose how many untested rape kits are in their possession and how many will be submitted and not submitted for testing.” 

In a posting from the Thomas Reuters Foundation, the problem of those “dropped” cases is addressed by Sarah Tofte, director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation and author of the 2009 Human Rights Watch Report on untested rape kits in Los Angeles County, Calif., observes that the reasons that a case has been dropped may sit in the wide discretion afforded police officers. “Why are some cases left behind? Inevitably they come back, over and over again, to (the detectives’) opinion of the victim, her value to speak, her worth, her position in our society and how likely she is to be believed.” This provides a compelling case, she says, for mandating testing. “Law enforcement agencies say the number one reason they don’t process kits is lack of resources. I would say, in my observations, that the number one reason is less about resources than will and the continued deficiencies in the way that law enforcement in a lot of jurisdictions treat sexual assault cases,” Tofte said. The Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by actress Mariska Hargitay, is advocating for state laws requiring that all rape kits be processed and the creation of a national database.

Test 400K is working with testing firms to ensure that they will provide discounts to police departments that need to process a backlog.  Smolyansky points out that “(t)here should be some kind of scanning code that can track where the package is at any time. We order something on Amazon and we know where it is at any given moment, but sometimes we lose the most precious evidence in our state…We can claim budgetary problems, but the issue of rape is stigmatized. Women’s words are never counted. This backlog is symbolic of a bigger cultural issue.” – Ruth McCambridge