While playing a recurring role on Law & Order: Special Victims’ Unit, actress Mariska Hargitay became acutely aware of the staggering statistics about sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse in the United State. She recalls receiving thousands of emails and letters from survivors who disclosed their personal stories to her. Although Hargitay knew that she could not answer all the letters, she knew that she wanted to find a way to impact meaningful change.
In 2004, Hargitay founded Joyful Heart in Kona, Hawaii to help survivors find healing pathways. Since then, Joyful Heart has morphed into a national force for advocacy—most notably for pushing the issue of backlogged rape kits.
The U.S. Department of Justice has estimated that there are more than 225,000 unprocessed rape kits sitting in crime labs and other storage facilities across the United States. But with 14 states still not enacting legislation that would require a yearly count of untested kits, the actual number of backlogged kits could be considerably higher. The Joyful Heart Foundation defines a backlogged kit as one that has not been submitted to an accredited public or private crime lab for testing within 30 days of being booked into evidence.
“To me, the backlog is one of the clearest and most shocking demonstrations of how we regard these crimes in our society. Testing rape kits sends a fundamental and crucial message to victims of sexual violence: You matter. What happened to you matters. Your case matters,” says Hargitay.
Former Alaskan Governor Bill Walker heeded Hargitay’s message on July 2, 2018 with the passing into law of HB 31. The law requires an annual inventory of untested rape kits and included $2.75 million to test every kit in the state; however, the legislation does not currently extend to newly collected rape kits as funding was only allocated for FY 2018.
According to the Alaska Department of Public Safety Sexual Assault Kit Initiative website, all 48 statewide police departments have submitted their inventory lists of untested rape kits to the Crime Lab. To date, the Crime Lab has received rape kits from 46 of the 48 police departments and the Anchorage Police Department is submitting weekly batches due to a large inventory. In an effort to minimize the turnaround time for current sexual assault cases, the Crime Lab has entered into an agreement with Bode Cellmark Forensics, a private crime lab based in Virginia. The first results from Bode are expected to be received this month.
The Crime Lab has also begun moving towards creating centralized storage for all rape kits
after collection. The hope is that centralized storage will ensure that all rape kits are stored for the length of time required by law. It will also enable the kits to be stored under the proper physical conditions to maximize the chances of preserving DNA for a successful analysis.