Sexual assault survivors in Illinois now have the ability to track evidence in new cases.
The Illinois State Police, which runs state laboratories that analyze DNA evidence, launched a long-awaited tracking system for rape kits in August. Survivors will receive a case number in a hospital emergency room that allows them to access location information.
Many survivors had been anticipating tracking their kits, but the system is not retroactive; tracking numbers are assigned only for new cases, according to ISP.
Beth Hundsdorfer, a spokesperson for Illinois State Police, said survivors with cases before Aug. 14 should check with the investigating agency for more information. She noted that lab work on all previous sexual assault cases should be completed within six months.
Efforts to create the tracking system, which advocates say can boost accountability and support survivors, have long been underway; the system was initially supposed to launch in 2019 but was delayed until this year.
“Surviving sexual assault is a traumatic experience,” said Carrie Ward, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “The transparency this system provides is empowering to victims.”
Survivors have told the Tribune they have waited as long as 15 months for evidence in their case to be processed. Thousands of pieces of evidence are languishing in Illinois labs; the state has a decadeslong history of a large backlog in processing evidence. Even after a recent reduction in cases awaiting processing, rape victims still wait as long as a year or more before evidence is analyzed. Cases can be suspended while officers wait on evidence.
Shira Ellenberg Blanton, a sexual assault nurse examiner at Swedish Hospital, used the system for a recent patient who arrived in the emergency room and wanted a rape kit. With all the paperwork they give patients as they leave — discharge information, resource contact numbers, sometimes prescriptions — she was able to add a number for the patient to track the rape kit.
“This is one resource that I can say, here, make sure you don’t lose this,” she said. “This makes it more tangible, to maybe be able to reassert some power and control over a situation that took power and control away from them.”
In March 2019, announcing plans for the online tracking system, ISP director Brendan Kelly said, “Survivors of sexual assault or violent crime shouldn’t be left in the dark while their kit makes its way through a system that can seem cold and indifferent.”
Long waits can imperil prosecutions as memories fade and victims might simply want to move on. Advocates say being able to track evidence can offer a measure of support and control.
With the new system, survivors will get a case number that they can use to track their evidence through five steps: initial collection at a health care facility, receipt by a law enforcement agency, receipt by a forensic laboratory, laboratory analysis and when a laboratory report is sent to a law enforcement agency.
But not all hospitals are participating. ISP did not release a list of hospitals, but said 86 percent of eligible health care facilities have submitted agreements to use the system.
In Chicago, The University of Chicago Medical Center, Northwestern Memorial Hospital and Swedish Hospital have the tracking system up and running, according to spokespeople there.
At the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, legal director Mallory Littlejohn has been following the stalled system in frustration for years.
“This was a priority for us, to see why it was taking so long,” she said. “It’s absolutely a need.”
It is even more important this year, she added, as police resources are focused on issues like looting and unrest. Advocates have been less able to communicate with officers to get a case update, she said.
“It’s like, ‘Where else can I get an update? Oh, from this tracking system that’s supposed to be in existence,’” she said.
Littlejohn said she hadn’t heard the system was live and was skeptical of how useful it would be if not all hospitals are on board.
Ward called the system’s launch a first step.
“We look forward to the day when the tracking system is fully implemented in every treatment hospital across the state and all victims can track their kits quickly and easily,” she said.
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