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News Channel 12 Investigates: State leaders working to decrease sexual abuse kit backlogs

North Carolina has been dealing with a problem of a backlog of untested sexual abuse kits for years. (Photo: Kate Hussey, News Channel 12){p}{/p}
North Carolina has been dealing with a problem of a backlog of untested sexual abuse kits for years. (Photo: Kate Hussey, News Channel 12)

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More progress is being made in clearing the backlog of untested sexual assault kits that sat on the shelves of North Carolina law enforcement agencies for decades.

NewsChannel 12 has been following the sexual assault kit tracking system year after year, ever since it was first implemented in 2018. This year, Attorney General Josh Stein, said funding has been key.

Related: Progress being made in testing sexual assault kits statewide, AG says

Stein said testing was slowing, as the State Crime Lab was overwhelmed by the amount of test kits coming in.

Stein said now that the budget passed, granting $9 million to aid with testing, it is an improvement that could eliminate the backlog entirely. He said the only problem is, it is going to take time.

According to data from the State Department of Justice, in 2018, 12,835 sexual assault kits went untested, many of them sat on the shelves of law enforcement agencies across the state for decades, including in Eastern North Carolina.

In 2018, Stein implemented the Sexual Assault Kit Tracking System, allowing victims to track their sexual assault kits the same way you track a pizza, keeping handlers of the kits accountable.

“We are continually learning about cases being solved, there have been some 60 different cases, or people who have been identified through this work, responsible for over 90 crimes,” said Stein.

One year after the tracking system’s implementation, 866 kits were entered into the system to be tested. Out of those, 631, or 72 percent were completed, while 28 percent (235 kits) were still waiting to be completed.

In 2020, that number dropped to 40 percent. Of the 5,212 kits entered into the system for testing, 2,117 (40 percent) were completed, while 60 percent of the kits (3,095) were still waiting for completion.

In 2021, of the 7,387 kits entered into the system, 4,373 (59 percent) were completed while 3,014 (41 percent) were still in the process of being tested.

That number was an improvement in the speed of testing compared to 2020, yet still slower than the rate kits were being tested in 2019.

Related: Tracking system seeks to help sexual assault victims get justice

Stein said the influx of old and new kits coming in was overwhelming the State Crime Lab.

In 2021, there were 150 scientists working in the state crime lab, tasked with testing thousands of sexual assault kits, causing the process to inevitably slowdown.

“We want it to go faster. We have to turn all evidence, our objective is to make sure the criminal justice system operates as smoothly and as efficiently as it can,” said Stein.

That’s where the $9 million in additional funding approved in the budget helps. It allows the state to contract help from outside labs, as well as and hire eight additional lab scientists.

“We are in the process of aggressively testing all these old kits,” said Stein. “About three quarters of them have either been tested or are in the process of being tested.”

That means early 10,000 kits, 9,730 victims to be exact, are now a step closer to justice, a sign that the system is once again working.

“I think the state is exceptionally well positioned to both eliminate the full backlog of these untested kits, and get these new kits to the point where we're turning them around much more quickly for law enforcement,” said Stein.

Eastern North Carolina also saw progress.

Prior to the implementation of the Sexual Assault Kit Tracking system, there were 132 untested sexual assault kits in Craven County, 102 in Carteret, 161 in Onslow, 371 in Pitt, and 75 in Lenoir.

As of May of 2022, in Craven, the number of kits still waiting for testing dropped to 18. There’s currently one in Carteret, five in Onslow, four in Pitt and 11 in Lenoir.

It’s encouraging news for Claudia Johnson, a Sexual Assault/Domestic Violence Coordinator at CarolinaEast Medical Center in New Bern. Johnson knows how critical a sexual assault kit is to the victims she helps, she’s seen the kits bring victims justice before, knowing her hard work, the bravery of those she works for, won’t go to waste.

“It makes me feel good, because what you do matters and it makes you feel like you’re a part of that process," said Johnson. “I have. The kits played a big role in getting the evidence that was needed [for a conviction]."

Johnson said the tracking system is, at least in large part, to thank for her confidence in the justice system.

“Now every kit is being sent to the crime lab. There’s now a tracking number on here,” said Johnson. “It makes me feel good because what you do matters and it makes you feel like you’re a part of that process.”

Stein said while the funding is already being implemented, it takes a full year to train scientists, meaning the eight additional hires for the state crime lab won’t start working for a while. Stein believes it could take as little as several months or as long as two years to completely eliminate the backlog.

Stein said the other problem is a shortage of nurses like Johnson. Stein said currently there isn’t even a system that keeps track of how many SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) nurses each hospital has.

NewsChannel 12 is continuing to investigate that problem and will have an update.

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