MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - When Ilse Knecht thinks about thousands of untested sexual assault kits, she imagines thousands of people sitting on shelves.
“Each one of these boxes represents a survivor who went through that experience, did everything society asked them to do - report the crime to police, have evidence collected and participate in the criminal justice process - and we fail them,” Knecht said.
Knecht is the director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national organization that focuses on improving sexual assault and domestic violence.
The non-profit organization made eliminating the sexual assault kit backlog a priority in 2010. Its program, End the Backlog, seeks to bring transparency to the process and advocates for legislative changes across the United States.
The organization identified more than 155,000 untested kits in the United States.
“What it comes back down to is that the criminal justice system as a whole has not prioritized sexual violence as the violent crime that it is,” Knecht said. “Sex crime units across the country are severely underfunded and severely understaffed, so along the line there has been a whole policy of neglect.”
The estimate doesn't include counts in 11 states and the estimates for many others is likely much higher.
Many states, including South Carolina, have no statewide inventory to keep track of this evidence.
“If you don’t know how many you have and you have no way to find out, that’s pretty scary,” Knecht said.
The organization estimated there are 813 untested kits in S.C., but WMBF found the number is much higher.
Tracking the untested
Last year, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division sent out a survey to the over 300 agencies across the state.
Two-thirds of the agencies had not responded as of January.
The 101 that did respond revealed 1,753 kits are untested throughout the state.
WMBF sent a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to 43 agencies, including local police departments, sheriff’s’ offices and university police.
Of the 34 agencies that responded, 713 sexual assault kits were collected and logged into evidence over the last five years.
WMBF found 27 percent of the kits were never tested.
The Georgetown Sheriff’s Office, Florence County Sheriff’s Office and the Lumberton Police Department reported the highest number of untested kits.
After months, the Georgetown Police Department, Pamplico Police Department, McColl Police Department and the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office never fulfilled the request.
Other agencies were unable to fulfill the entire FOIA request for the number of kits collected, number of kits processed, number of kits left untested, and number of sexual assaults reported over the last five years.
The Atlantic Beach Police Department, Coastal Carolina Police Department, Darlington County Sheriff’s Office and the Florence Police Department claimed the FOIA request does not require them to create a document that does not exist, meaning they have no document or database tracking how many rape kits were logged into evidence or processed.
“Right there that tells you about the state of rape kits and how much or little priority many law enforcement departments give to rape kits and therefore sexual assault,” said Knecht, who has been something similar by departments across the nation.
Agencies aren’t breaking any rules by not keeping track of this information in a shareable format because no one requires agencies in South Carolina to track the kits or even have an inventory.
“They're not made available. They're never tested. They get damaged. They get lost,” said Nicole Service, a Myrtle Beach Rape Crisis Center volunteer coordinator.
Even more alarming is around half of the agencies were unable to provide WMBF with written policies specific to sexual assault evidence.
With no policies in place on how to handle the kits and without any agency holding departments accountable, the fate of individual kits and cases can be determined by individual agencies and officers.
“People go into this job sometimes and they’re never trained about effectively interviewing a sexual assault survivor, why we send rape kits to the lab, you know, those kinds of things, so they are just making a decision sometimes on a gut check,” said Knecht.
This is the second part of a multi-part series called “Untested: The Rape Kit Crisis in the Carolinas." Click here to go to the official “Untested” page.