By: Nikita Karulkar, Staff Writer | February 23, 2017
Alexenko is an activist.
Alexenko is a former museum scientist.
And in 1993, after Alexenko was raped and robbed at gunpoint, she became a survivor.
Alexenko, 43, an advocate with the Joyful Heart Foundation’s End the Backlog project and the founder of her own nonprofit — Natasha’s Justice Project — has been a sexual assault survivor for 23 years.
“I like to say surviving is a chronic disease — it never really goes away,” the Long Island, New York, resident said.
Alexenko was 20 when she was assaulted. Although she wanted to just forget about the incident, her college roommate at the New York Institute of Technology urged her to go to a hospital that night.
“My first thought was that I wanted to take a really hot shower. I was afraid for my life. But I’m grateful for that moment,” she said about deciding to go to the emergency room.
At the hospital, doctors examined Alexenko and gathered evidence of her assault in a rape kit, or a sexual assault evidence collection kit. Medical professionals use rape kits to store physical and biological evidence — including a collection of clothing from the survivor's body, scrapings from under fingernails and swabs of bodily fluids, such as semen.
Along with the results of a physical examination of the survivor’s body, a medical specialist documents and photographs any visible injuries alongside a ruler for scale and measures any indications of internal damage with a colposcope, a medical diagnostic tool.
Then, the hospitals send the kits to police departments or crime and forensics labs where they are evaluated and ultimately used to decipher more details about the crime.
Alexenko’s trip to the hospital, and the grueling process of documenting evidence of her assault just after it happened, helped catch the man who attacked her — but it took more than 10 years.
Although Alexenko was raped in 1993, her kit was not processed until 2003. It was only in 2007 that the offender was finally apprehended, tried and found guilty.
For more than a decade, she carried an overwhelming feeling of apprehension.
“I went on healing, but I always had a sense of guilt that I couldn’t help put my perpetrator behind bars. He was still out there,” Alexenko said. “I didn’t blame the system, and I didn’t blame the lack of resources.”
She now knows she should have.
Alexenko’s case is one of many across the nation that was stalled at forensic labs due to a lack of funding and structure. Even today, this hinders authorities’ ability to report and process rape kits.
A forensic kit is considered “backlogged” if it sits for 12 months or more without being tested — a problem that’s plagued forensic labs across the country in recent years. Because there is no federal mandate for tracking untested kits, the number of backlogged kits in the United States can only be approximated. Nationally, there are more than 175,000 untested rape kits, according to End The Backlog — but this is only an estimate.
The extent of the problem became clearer after individual states, including Pennsylvania, began to seek outside funding and mandate that police departments report the number of untested kits waiting in labs.
The most recent statewide measurements report that there were 3,044 rape kits awaiting testing throughout Pennsylvania, 1,825 of which qualified as backlogged, according to a September 2016 report from Auditor General Eugene DePasquale. In Allegheny County, there were 132 kits awaiting testing at the time, 29 of which had been waiting for more than a year.
Alexenko said before advocates and forensic labs started pushing for more funding and policy to make testing kits easier, the process was even more disorganized. Kits were unmarked, and it was difficult to tell what stage of processing they were in.
Some states didn’t even have a database to keep track of kits moving through the system, which is still common in rural areas.
“The reality was that before we started talking about it, there was no consistency or way to track the kits,” Alexenko said. “Now, advocates are fighting for legislation for states to take up auditing ... It’s really two things. First, each state needs to have mandates on the auditing of kits, and second, they need to put [the kits] on timelines.”
In Pennsylvania, legislators passed Act 27 in 2015, which requires law enforcement agencies and crime labs to report untested and backlogged kits.
DePasquale’s 2016 report found that the legislation, while well-intentioned, failed to provide the Department of Health and local police departments with the resources necessary to test the rape kits. The report also claimed police departments were not adequately informed on how to report the number of backlogged kits to the state.
Though Act 27 is a step in the right direction, Jasmine B. Gonzales Rose, a former social worker and an assistant professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, found fault with some of its more unrealistic requirements.
The act mandates that hospitals must notify policing agencies of collected rape kits as soon as is practical, but she said this is too subjective to stick.
“The ‘soon as practical’ definition is open to interpretation, and there’s not really anything enforced,” she said.
Overall, the number of criminal cases requiring testing — including DNA testing, firearm examination and blood alcohol testing, among others — in the commonwealth increased fivefold over the last five years. However, funding from the federal government dropped by $70,000, according to the September 2016 report.
Allegheny County Chief Medical Examiner Karl Williams has noticed the disparity in his own lab.
“The demands from the police side have gone up,” Williams said. “There is no forensic lab in the country that doesn’t have a backlog in all or many of its sections ... we are underfunded and undermanned.”
Although many of the results from the auditor general’s report were bleak, Kristen Houser, the chief public affairs officer for the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape, said it’s brought much-needed attention to the backlog issue.
“The report sends the message that this is a priority for the commonwealth, because we are identifying the scope of the problem and the resources that will be needed to solve the backlog,” she said.
A little more than a year after the report, the number of backlogged kits in the Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office is now zero, according to Williams, and is dropping throughout the rest of the state as well.
A $38 million grant from the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in late 2015 gave funding to 32 jurisdictions nationwide to confront the backlog.
The Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s Office was awarded $254,437 to test 400 rape kits, with the help of private labs. Williams credits the proactivity of his lab to the grant money.
Sgt. Joseph Gannon of the Pittsburgh police said both before and after the grant, the police have followed the standard “chain of evidence” procedures, submitting the kits they receive to the Allegheny County Crime Lab for processing.
He attributed a remaining backlog issue in the state to small town departments, but said Allegheny County benefits from good cooperation between departments.
Still, a more long-term solution to the problem — both in the state and nationwide — does not yet exist, even though the need for sexual assault kit reporting is growing.
“If we don’t change our staffing [in Pennsylvania] to meet the volume, there will be a backlog,” Houser said.
Evidence processing is complex, and forensic labs — working meticulously — tend to move more slowly than law enforcement officials might like, according to Williams.
“Nothing happens immediately in a forensic lab,” he said.
When a rape kit comes to the lab, examiners look over the material — clothing, semen or fingernails, for example — for human DNA, using a completely automated system whenever they can, in order to reduce errors. A polymerase chain reaction machine allows DNA analysts to make multiple copies of DNA from just one sample, so examiners need only a very small amount of DNA in order to conduct accurate testing.
“There are 13 to 16 very specific points, or loci, on the chromosomes, and all DNA analysts look for those specific points,” he said. “We then see if we can compare those points with someone else’s DNA.”
Once analysts have a DNA profile, they may upload it to the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which is the FBI’s DNA profile database, and look to see if any profiles match with the suspect’s DNA. But not all DNA profiles go into the database.
“We can’t just put up any profile, because there’s a very specific criteria. We have to know that it comes from a scene of a crime,” Williams said. “If we know it’s an assault case, we submit it to CODIS and try to see if there’s a match.”
Rape kits can be stored essentially anywhere, for any amount of time.
“DNA is extraordinarily stable ... as long as it’s dry, clean and kept at a constant temperature, it’s very durable,” Williams said. "All labs keep sexual assault kits for as long as possible. The ultimate goal is for a 75-year retention time.”
In theory, scientific advancements allow the process to work smoothly and quickly. But there are other issues at play.
Processing rape kits is expensive — on average it costs between $1,000 and $1,500 to test one kit. Some states have considered making sexual assault perpetrators pay for the kits as part of their restitution, but enforcement is difficult.
Regardless, money should not stand in the way of processing kits, Alexenko said.
“Think about what it costs to test, and then what the crime cost me and my family,” Alexenko said. “What is the cost of a rapist on a nationwide crime spree who’s a burden on our community? You can’t put a dollar value on that.”
The mentality of law enforcement officials in investigating incidents of sexual assault has been changing only in recent years, as American society comes to understand that rapists can be anyone — acquaintances, friends or partners. About 85 to 90 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, according to the National Institute of Justice.
Even with this increasing awareness, Alexenko said there is still a societal problem behind the majority’s perspective of sexual assault cases and survivors.
“It’s a symptom of a bigger disease: rape culture. One reason we have unprocessed rape kits is that sometimes it’s not even treated as a crime,” Alexenko said.
It’s called the “CSI effect”: TV shows based on criminal investigators have made modern juries demand hard, scientific evidence that a crime has been committed — even when science or reality doesn’t allow for that level of precision.
The effect is just a theory, but in the most straightforward sense, this is what a processed rape kit can offer, according to Marissa Bluestine, the legal director for the Innocence Project.
“Rape kits are important because they’re your clearest shot of identifying the perpetrator,” Bluestine said.
The Innocence Project is a nonprofit that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people in criminal cases. In some cases, a single rapist may be responsible for multiple assaults. Because of this, and because some individuals may have been wrongly convicted without evidence from a kit, Bluestine said even testing a kit from a closed or cold case could lead to information in new, unsolved cases.
“If the rape kits are from closed cases, then we believe that the evidence should be tested,” Bluestine said. “I understand that they want to move onto the cases that are unsolved, but if those cases aren’t included, how do you know?”
Ultimately, however, it’s the broader message from a backlog of thousands of unsolved cases — and untested rape kits — that bothers Bluestine and others.
“[The backlog] destroys all confidence in the criminal justice system and belittles the victims of sexual assault crimes,” said Tony Gaskew, associate professor of criminal justice and director of the criminal justice program at the Pitt Bradford campus.
Testing kits is an important part of prosecution and sentencing, but wading through the backlog also shows survivors that someone still cares about what happened to them.
Gonzales Rose remembers sitting with survivors in the emergency room, shuddering to think that they would go through the grueling process of examination and then never see their rapist prosecuted — or, like Alexenko, spend years waiting for justice.
“What makes me so upset is that survivors have to endure [the rape kit collection process] and to never even have it tested. It means that it had basically been for nothing,” Gonzales Rose said. “If nothing else, we should test these kits out of respect for the victims.”