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Tracking System Meant To Increase Transparency In Sexual Assault Investigations

Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller
Joyce Russell
IPR file photo
Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller

Survivors of sexual assault in Iowa can now track where an evidence kit is being held and whether it has been analyzed by the state criminal lab.

The Iowa Attorney General’s Office has completed the rollout of a new statewide sexual assault evidence tracking system that allows survivors to look up where an evidence kit has been stored and whether it has undergone DNA analysis.

The system, funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Justice, was established as part of the state’s response to an investigation that uncovered and extensive backlog of untested kits.

Geoff Peiffer, a detective sergeant in the Davenport Police Department, said the system adds transparency to a process that in the past often left victims in the dark.

“Tracking status is very important to a survivor of sexual assault,” Peiffer said. “It’s one of the most common things that gets asked of us investigators. Where is my kit? Was anything found in it? Why does it take so long?”

Under the new system, assault survivors will be given access to a website after an evidence kit is collected. The site will show where the kit is stored by law enforcement and when it is analyzed at the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigations forensic laboratory. The site also includes information about counseling and advocacy services.

Allowing a victim to check a kit’s status saves them from having to rely on police investigators for the latest information, said Shannon Knudsen of the Mid-Iowa Sexual Assault Response Team.

“Prior to this we were able to tell them that we collected the kit and they may not hear anything further until sometimes a year later as far as where their kit is,” Knudsen said. "Knowing that we can reassure them that their kit is being taken care of appropriately is really critical.”

State law enforcement officials have been working to shorten the time it takes to process sexual assault evidence and to eliminate a backlog of untested kits.

A 2017 audit identified 4,265 unprocessed kits across the state. The Iowa Attorney General’s office reports 1,629 of those kits will be processed, however, the rest were not considered eligible for testing. Robert Hamill of the Crime Statistics Division of the Iowa Attorney General’s Office said that was often because the victim was unidentified or had not consented to have the evidence tested.

“We identified the ones that were not tested previously because the victim did not choose to file a report, it was anonymous or the victim disengaged from the investigation as ones that we didn’t want to test,” Hamill said. “They could still be viable for testing if the survivor came forward and wanted to have them tested.”

New evidence from assault cases is being processed more quickly, according to the Iowa Department of Public Safety. As of September last year, 199 days was the average time required before a kit was tested. By September 2020 that time was down to 46 days.

Grant Gerlock is a reporter covering Des Moines and central Iowa