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A multidisciplinary, victim-centered approach and standardized, efficient evidence processing in sexual assault cases are the focus of a new report by the National Institute of Justice. The report, National Best Practices for Sexual Assault Kits, released Tuesday, outlines 35 suggestions for laboratories and law enforcement to improve their sexual assault investigations, tackling issues such as evidence collection, storage and maintenance; backlog tracking and processing; victim advocacy and notification; and sensitivity to trauma in sexual assault victims.

A working group—consisting of victims and victim advocates, sexual assault nurse examiners and medical examiners, forensic laboratories, law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and members of the judiciary—developed the suggestions over a two-year period following the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act of 2013, a component of the Violence Against Women Act.

The suggestions are divided into six major focus areas—a multidisciplinary approach; the medical-forensic exam and sexual assault evidence collection; transparency and accountability of law enforcement for sexual assault kits; investigative considerations; processing sexual assault kits in the laboratory; and post-analysis communication and policy considerations.

"This Best Practices Report is intended to provide guidance to jurisdictions throughout the nation to implement protocols to identify and prioritize the collection and processing of sexual assault evidence," said an NIJ representative in an email to Forensic Magazine. "We recognize that different jurisdictions have different challenges; however, this report provides holistic recommendations that speak to a broad set of challenges that apply to all stakeholders."

Focus on Victim Advocacy

In implementing a multidisciplinary and victim-centered approach to sexual assault cases, the report recommends communicating with and engaging a variety of stakeholders and professionals in better understanding how to improve sexual assault investigations and encourage victims’ trust in the criminal justice system.

The NIJ working group encourages increased involvement of both community-based and system-based victim advocates to provide both emotional support to victims in the aftermath of an assault and to aid the victim in interacting with the criminal justice system should they choose to report the assault. They also recommend a trauma-informed approach, involving training of responders to understand the neurobiology of trauma, and the engagement of stakeholders from underserved communities—such as those in rural areas—to address their unique challenges.

"A victim centered approach is the focus on the needs and concerns of a victim to ensure the compassionate and sensitive delivery of services in a nonjudgmental manner. A trauma-informed approach considers the impact of trauma and victim safety considerations," the NIJ representative told Forensic Magazine. "Utilizing both approaches in the development and implementation of policies and procedures leads to more timely submission of evidence to forensic laboratories, enhances communications and investigative procedures, promotes better informed prosecutorial decision-making, and ultimately may reduce re-traumatization of victims by the criminal justice system. In fact, these approaches are more likely to increase victim participation and thereby support more complete investigations, increasing the overall likelihood of successful prosecutions." 

Exams and Evidence Collection

For forensic medical exams, the report sets forth a number of suggested standards for evidence collection from the bodies of victims, suspects and others—such as consensual sexual partners who need to be excluded—and suggests the establishment of minimum national standards for sexual assault kits that specify what the contents of the kit should include, how kits should be labeled and how medical-forensic exams should be documented.

The authors specify that all medical-forensic exams following a sexual assault should be performed by a sexual assault nurse examiner or other specifically trained health care professional. The report outlines recommended timeframes for the collection of evidence from specific parts of the body following an assault, and indicates that no more than two swabs should be use per collection area to prevent dilution of the biological sample. 

This table from the NIJ report outlines recommended time frames for the collection of evidence from specific locations. (Credit: National Institute of Justice)

The report emphasizes that medical-forensic exams should be available to all sexual assault victims— regardless of whether they decide to report or not, or whether they choose to report anonymously—and that, due to the high sensitivity of modern DNA technology, special care should be taken to avoid contamination from examiners, such as the use of gloves and face masks.

Kit Processing, Storage and the Backlog

The transfer of sexual assault kits between medical examiners, law enforcement and laboratories is also covered. Law enforcement and laboratories should cooperate and use one evidence tracking system between them, according to the report. The suggested timeframe for the transfer of kits from the examiner to the law enforcement agency is three business days, and from law enforcement to laboratory the suggested timeframe is seven business days.

Long-term storage of sexual assault kits should be the responsibility of law enforcement agencies and laboratories, not hospitals or rape crisis centers, the authors say. The report outlines ideal conditions for the storage of different types of samples, and says that all agencies should begin taking inventory of their stored kits so that a national picture of the kit backlog can eventually be understood. It also suggests yearly audits of kits.

This table from the NIJ report shows the recommended long-term storage conditions for specific types of evidence. (Credit: National Institute of Justice)

To improve investigations and increase turnaround times for assault kit analysis, the report says all sexual assault kits for which the victim has consented to reporting should be tested, and that kit analysis should go direct to DNA instead of an initial serology test. The authors explain that DNA tests are currently more sensitive than serology tests, and that forgoing DNA testing based on negative serology results can risk missing viable DNA evidence—serology tests also take time and can unnecessarily slow down analysis.

Labs should use business process improvement tools and consider a high-throughput approach, outlined in the appendix of the report, as well as automation and robotics to speed up testing, the authors say. Outsourcing to other labs when facing a backlog is mentioned as a temporary option, but not a long term solution—the previously mentioned methods for improving turnaround time are offered as solutions for backlog reduction.

Victim Notification and Evidence Retention

Post-analysis considerations, including how long to retain sexual assault kits in storage and how to notify victims about the status of their kit, is the final topic covered in the report. Trauma-informed victim notification protocols are recommended, with guidelines for such protocols included in the report’s appendix.

The working group suggests retention of kits in reported sexual assault cases for at least 50 years, and retention of kits in unreported sexual assault kits for at least the statute of limitations or up to 20 years. However, the report also recommends options for extending the retention of sexual assault evidence, such as issuing “John Doe” warrants based on DNA profiles to keep cases active when statutes of limitations are approaching, and advocating for the elimination of statutes of limitations altogether in sexual assault cases, where DNA can identify a perpetrator many years after an attack.

The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors responded to the release, saying, "(ASCLD) applauds this initiative and release of this instructive document" and "ASCLD looks forward to working with agency leaders and colleagues in partner agencies to implement best practices to ensure timely and quality analysis of all cases of sexual assault."

The full report is available here.

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