The Cost of Things: Testing a Rape Kit

It’s not as much as you think.

Image: Michael Pereckas

If you’re not familiar with the term “rape kit,” I’m assuming it’s because you’ve never seen an episode in the Law and Order franchise, or you’ve never had to have a rape kit performed on yourself or someone very close to you. I sincerely hope that it’s the latter.

A “rape kit,” which refers to the instruments used to collect DNA and other evidence from someone who has been raped, consists of bags and paper sheets for evidence collection, a comb, documentation forms, envelopes, instructions, materials for taking blood samples, and swabs. (The contents might vary based on where the rape kit is being administered.) Ideally, the exam should be done within 72 hours of the assault, since semen can live in the body up until that time, but folks are also encouraged to have a rape kit taken if 72 hours have passed, since having the kit administered increases the likelihood that the perpetrator will prosecuted.

After the kit is collected, it’s saved. How long it’s saved varies, depending on where you live, as does the amount of time that one has to pursue legal action against the perpetrator. However, if the evidence acquired in the rape kit never gets tested, it’s pretty hard to use it to prosecute anyone. Many kits never make it to a crime lab for testing and instead collect dust in police storage facilities, and some do get to a crime lab, but still linger on shelves. These untested rape kits comprise what is known as the rape kit backlog.

According to the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national organization whose goal is to transform the societal response to domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse, and to support survivors, for a rape kit to be classified as part of the backlog, it must remain untested for 30 days after arriving at an accredited lab, and one that has yet to be submitted to a lab within 10 days of evidence being collected.

It can cost as little as $600 and as much as $1,500 to test a rape kit. According to Ilse Knecht, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, the cost of rape kit testing depends on the nature of the case. The more DNA profiles involved, especially if one of those is of one or more consensual sexual partners, and the more orifices involved in the assault, the more complicated the testing and therefore, the more expensive.

The cost of testing a rape kit is one factor in the backlog, but it’s not the only one. “There are issues with staffing time, sex crimes units are often understaffed and if you don’t have enough detectives, things fall to the wayside,” said Knecht. This, combined with bias against survivors of sexual assault, a gap in knowledge about sex offender patterns, as well as about how trauma impacts survivors, and issues that survivors might be dealing with that would prevent them from coming in to inquire about their case, are all reasons why rape kits go untested.

T, a DNA analyst at a lab in Texas, a state with mandatory testing — meaning every rape kit that’s collected has to be tested — has seen first hand what causes a state, city, or county to have a backlog of untested rape kits. In addition to the constant turnover of staff in labs, there’s the fact that when a capital (death penalty) case arrives in the lab, they’re required to test all evidence associated with it, an endeavor which involves taking time and energy from the staff, who are then pulled away from the task of rape kit testing.

“The process of testing a rape kit is tedious,” T told me. “You’re looking for one little sperm. People get burnt out, and they leave. There is new technology available that will make it easier, but training people on that takes time.”

In January 2016, the Begun Center for Violence Prevention, Research and Education at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland teamed up with the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office to learn more about the county’s untested rape kits. The county submitted 4,845 untested rape kits accumulated between 1993 and 2010 for testing. An analysis revealed that as of January 2016, Cuyahoga County saved $48.2 million dollars by averting future sexual assaults as a result of testing these kits, since of the 243 kits studied, 51 percent were linked to serial offenders.

The consequences of the backlog are crushing for the actual humans each untested kit represents. We love to accuse rape victims of lying, especially when it’s a case involving an acquaintance, which, statistically, it usually is. Testing rape kits can go a long way towards changing attitudes towards rape victims and rape as a crime.

If you want to take action, Ilse Knecht suggests learning about the status of your city or town’s untested kits, which you can do via the Freedom of Information Act, supporting your local rape crisis center and/or local lab (although, be aware that some labs might not be able to accept fundraising), and coalitions, such as Enough Said, a Detroit area project formed to raise money to test the city’s 11,341 untested rape kits. You don’t have to have Mariska Hargitay level money to make a change.

Find more ways to take action at

Chanel Dubofsky’s work has been published at Previously.TV, Cosmopolitan, Rewire, Extra Crispy, and more. You can find her on Twitter at @chaneldubofsky.

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.