WA pushes beyond clearing sexual assault evidence kits

Legislation pushed by advocates, officials and survivors would require trauma-informed training for police officers, further support survivors.

Leah Griffin, a sexual assault victim advocate who is working closely with state Rep. Tina Orwall to clear Washington state’s backlog of rape kits, photographed at her home in White Center on March 31, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Turned away at the hospital, all but ignored at the police station and her case ultimately dismissed despite internal injuries and evidence of drugs in her system, Seattle resident Leah Griffin felt she had nowhere to turn for justice after being raped in 2014.

“When it happened to me, I was so shocked at how bad it was,” Griffin said. “Every single part of the system was broken — nothing worked.”

Around the same time, state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, learned Washington state had a backlog of over 10,000 untested rape evidence kits.

In Griffin’s quest for justice, she reached out to “anyone [she] thought could make a change.” Orwall, representing Griffin’s neighboring legislative district, was among the first to respond. 

“We found each other at the perfect time,” Griffin said. “She needed someone to tell their story, and I had a story to tell.”

Orwall got to work in 2015 on new policies to mandate testing of rape kits and established the Sexaul Assault Forensic Examination Best Practices Advisory Group made up of legislators, law enforcement, lawyers, health care workers, advocates and survivors like Griffin.

The group went on to craft policies that would shrink the rape kit backlog, require trauma-informed training for police officers, establish the nation’s first rape kit tracking system and, in Orwall’s words, “apologize” to survivors who have been failed by the state. According to survivors on the SAFE advisory group, their work is far from over.

This year, Orwall and longtime partner Rep. Gina Mosbrucker, R-Goldendale, are doubling down on their previous victories to further support survivors in what Mosbrucker calls the “next, most important recommendation,” House Bill 1109.

HB 1109, which has unanimously passed through both chambers of the Legislature, would build on the foundation laid by the SAFE advisory group. The bill would require law enforcement to report changes to investigations related to forensic analysis, implement a review system of officer-survivor interactions to improve the existing training program and expand the statutory rights afforded to survivors.

Stopping serial rapists with data

“The sexual assault kits are being tested, but we want more than that,” Orwall said.

Since the SAFE advisory group’s conception, about 76% of the backlog has been sent to an outsourced laboratory, according to Denise Rodier, the technical lead forensic scientist at the Washington State Patrol Seattle Crime Laboratory. Orwall said the entire backlog is set to be tested by mid-2022.

The latest legislation would require law enforcement to report changes in case status for sexual assault test kits that result in a federal Combined DNA Indexing System (CODIS) hit. The report would be made to the state Office of the Attorney General, in addition to Washington State Patrol, which is already notified.

When a rape kit is tested, the resulting DNA profile is uploaded to CODIS. A CODIS hit occurs when that DNA matches another profile in the system, meaning that the DNA is associated with another crime somewhere in the United States.

For Nicole Stephens, a survivor representative in the SAFE advisory group, this work to improve communication around the CODIS system has “weighed heavily” on her. When Stephens was assaulted 11 years ago, her sexual assault kit was not tested. Stephens was able to identify the perpetrator, so in what she calls an “old-school line of thought,” law enforcement did not feel the need to test her kit. It joined the thousands of white boxes in an evidence room.

Although Stephens knows testing would not advance her case at this point, the DNA profile could result in a CODIS hit that brings closure to another case. She says it’s harder for the legal system to write off a case if the rapist is a serial offender. 

Rodier of the Washington State Patrol Seattle Crime Lab reports that 1,610 rape kit profiles have been uploaded to CODIS since Washington began clearing its backlog of old sexual assult testing kits, resulting in 624 new CODIS hits. But that’s not the end of the story.

“We have to address the hits,” Mosbrucker said, noting sexual assault is often “serial by nature.” “When we get a hit, we have to do everything to get that serial offender off the streets.”

Stephens suspects that she was not the perpetrator’s only victim. As her 11-year-old rape kit moves through the backlogged system, Stephens expects a CODIS hit, something she said she can prepare for only so much.

“At some point, it is entirely possible that as hard as I have worked on this, I will be on the receiving end of one of those phone calls as well,” Stephens said. “It will bring me right back to 11 years ago when I was crushed that the legal system failed me.”

Leah Griffin, a sexual assault victim advocate, is among those  working to clear Washington state's backlog of rape kits. She is photographed at her home in White Center, March 31, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Improving trauma-informed training

After Leah Griffin was raped in 2014, she went to the police station to file a report. When she asked how long she would have to wait, she was told to “just go home,” she said.

She waited in the lobby for two hours, crying.

“Police came out and started to interview me about the most traumatic event of my life in the lobby in front of a man complaining about a package theft,” Griffin said.

In 2019, Orwall and Mosbrucker’s HB 1166 required specialized trauma-informed training for members of law enforcement who are responsible for investigating sexual assault cases. If HB 1109 becomes law this year, a new review system would aim to improve those courses.

“This is a chance for us to continue to grow and evolve the training,” said Jennifer Wallace, sexual assault investigations program manager at the Washington state Criminal Justice Training Commission. “I don’t think we have the arrogance to believe we know it all or have done it all as a training team.”

According to Wallace, the training (which has been virtual since June) is a four-day program delivered by a “multidisciplinary” team of nurses, prosecutors, investigators, advocates and, most important to Wallace, experts in trauma. The goal is to teach officers about the impacts of trauma and wellness skills to help victims cope with those impacts.

“Back when I was an investigator, I was trained that if somebody is not looking at you, if they are shifting, if they can’t provide a chronology — those are signs of deception,” Wallace said. “What we now know is that those are indicators of trauma.”

Wallace said officers learn best by doing. Drawing from the training center’s child abuse interviewing and investigation course, officers get hands-on experience by interviewing actors who portray a variety of victims.

One actor is Maggie Larrick, managing director at Burien Actors Theatre. Larrick has played a recovering addict navigating homelessness and a college student who is date-raped by a student in a fraternity.

“It’s like they’re stepping out on the emotional ledge with me,” Larrick said of her interviews with officers. “When I see someone put down the facade and be a warm person with me — I respect that a lot. It would win you over, I think.”

Larrick has been assaulted herself. She chose not to report the incident to the police because, she said, she thought no one would believe her.

“[This training] makes me hopeful that if a trauma needs to be reported to the police that it will be a supportive experience,” Larrick said.

Though Wallace believes the moc -interviews are good practice, she said there is currently no system for actual survivors to give feedback on their experience with officers.

The training center piloted the potential review system last October with closed cases provided by Whatcom County. According to Wallace, the review team, comprising members of the training team, has “learned a lot” from the pilot program with fewer than 30 cases.

“I’m hopeful about our future,” Wallace said. “If we can continue to bring in trauma-informed practices, I think we can go a long way to healing our criminal justice system.”

Survivor’s Bill of Rights

The third portion of HB 1109 builds on the Survivor’s Bill of Rights as prescribed in 2019 by HB 1166. According to Orwall, these rights were created with the input of the Joyful Heart Foundation, an advocacy group that helped with the national Survivor’s Bill of Rights.

Mosbrucker stressed the importance of involving advocates, who help survivors consider their options and navigate a system that sees very few cases to their end. In Mosbrucker’s words, an advocate “holds [the survivor’s] hand” throughout the process.

According to Stephens, there are many “touch points,” from assault to court verdict. During one of the early meetings of the SAFE advisory group, members discussed problems in the criminal justice system. Stephens recalled mention of the idea that survivors “fall out” of the system. She pushed back.

“Victims don’t just fall out,” Stephens said. “We don’t know where to turn; we don’t know what to do. We aren’t supported and we lose our way.”

With no objection from either chamber, HB 1109 needs only the governor's signature to become law.

Mosbrucker said the six years of work aimed at fixing the state’s sexual assault justice system will culminate in a public apology to survivors. The SAFE advisory group is not ready to issue that apology just yet. According to Mosbrucker, it could come as soon as the end of this year.

“My hope is that the work we’re doing gives people faith in the system again,” Orwall said. “We want to be there for them.”

Updated to change headline.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Hannah Krieg

Hannah Krieg was Crosscut's intern covering the 2021 state Legislature. She is a student studying Journalism and Public Interest Communication at the University of Washington. She is the engagement editor at the student newspaper, The Daily. Find her on Twitter at @hannahkrieg or email at krieghan00057@gmail.com