The Problem of Not Knowing

Indefinite saga of rape kits threatens societal welfare across the U.S.

Sarah Reinbrecht , Scarlet Staff

Anyone who has ever watched “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” is probably aware of rape kits and the dreaded backlog that prevents Olivia Benson and her team from catching the serial rapist. As much as one would want to believe rape kit backlogs are just another plot device in a television show, a backlog of untested rape kits is a very real problem.

To clarify, rape kits are, according to Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), “sexual assault forensic exams” used to “preserve possible DNA evidence and receive important medical care.” Further, the term “rape kit … refers to the kit itself—a container that includes a checklist, materials, and instructions, along with envelopes and containers to package any specimens collected during the exam.”

It can also be called a Sexual Assault Evidence Kit. The exact materials in a rape kit vary by state. Most importantly, rape kits can be crucial in solving, preventing, and prosecuting rape cases. It is especially important for rapists to be prosecuted because many rapists are repeat offenders.

However, to reap the benefits of rape kits, they need to be tested. Otherwise, the valuable information that these kits hold is lost, preventing closure and justice for rape and sexual assault survivors. Further, it may put other people at risk because rapists are often repeat offenders, as previously stated. Not prioritizing the testing of rape kits reflects an inappropriate, nonchalant attitude towards the safety of women and other groups vulnerable to rape.

According to, a program of Joyful Heart Foundation that works to expose the problem of the backlog, there are two key components of the problem: the untested/unsubmitted kits and the kits waiting to be tested in a DNA testing lab.

The untested/unsubmitted kits “are collected and booked into evidence, but detectives and/or prosecutors do not request DNA analysis” and may remain in a police evidence storage facility indefinitely,” explained

Police officers can request to halt testing of a kit for various reasons, such as if a survivor is being uncooperative. This power over the status of rape kits is unfair and places an undue responsibility on the survivor to behave and interact with the police in a specific way. states it is unclear how many kits were halted in the Boston Police Department between 2009 and 2013.

If a kit has been entered into evidence but has not been submitted to what calls “an accredited public or private crime lab for testing” within 10 days, it is considered backlogged. The kits awaiting testing in a DNA testing facility have 30 days from when the kit was received to be tested for evidence, otherwise they are considered to be backlogged.

Unfortunately, the number of backlogged rape kits cannot be determined because of a lack of laws requiring jurisdictions to count or track rape kits. However, it is estimated that there are hundreds of thousands of untested kits.

Massachusetts, despite it’s liberal reputation, is not exempt from this buildup. The number of untested kits is unknown in Massachusetts, as the state does not require by law that rape kits be tracked, counted, or even tested. Specific statistics could not be found for the city of Worcester.

Regardless of the number of untested kits, the lack of knowledge about the problem indicates that testing rape kits and minimizing the backlog is not a priority. It implicitly communicates to survivors of rape that their experiences do not matter, and it is not worthwhile to pursue justice for the crimes committed against them.

Considering that most survivors are women and members of marginalized communities, such as the LGBTQI+ community, backlogged rape kits only cement the message that these groups and their safety are secondary in our society.

Thankfully, Massachusetts is in the process of passing legislation that would lessen the backlog. Progress is on its way. Yet there is still a lack of sufficient funds, and municipal police departments are not reporting the status of their kits. There is still a clear problem, both nationwide and in Massachusetts, that needs to be recognized for the safety and wellbeing of current and future survivors.