- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

DES MOINES, Iowa (AP) - Iowa would have a better grasp of how many untested rape kits may be languishing at law enforcement agencies around the state under a bill that advanced Wednesday in the Legislature, and officials indicate the issue may extend to some hospitals.

The Iowa attorney general’s office recently released a survey to authorities aimed at counting the storage and potential backlogs of untested sexual abuse evidence collection kits. They’re using a $2 million federal grant to get the scope of the issue and to test as many kits as possible.

The House Public Safety Committee voted unanimously for legislation that would require authorities to respond to the electronic survey, which includes questions about why there may be a backlog. The attorney general’s office estimates there is a roughly 40 percent response rate in other states where officials have attempted to survey authorities without a mandate from the state.

The bill, which was introduced last session, will now eligible for a vote on the House floor.

Janelle Melohn, director of the Crime Victim Assistance Division within the state attorney general’s office, noted that her staff has already received some feedback from law enforcement agencies, which have 90 days to respond.

“As of right now what we know is about 1,500 (untested) kits, and that’s with less than a quarter of our law enforcement agencies responding,” she said, noting that the Des Moines Police Department reported more than 800 untested kits.

Multiple states have turned their focus in recent years on untested rape kits, which often are small boxes that contain swabs and specimens gathered during examinations of sexual abuse victims. The evidence is meant to identify or eliminate suspects in cases. The federal government pledged at least $40 million last year to combat some of the backlogs around the country.

“This is a national issue,” said Rep. Marti Anderson, D-Des Moines, who is a co-sponsor of the bill. She brought to the meeting a typical kit, which can cost up to $1,000 each to test.

The state attorney general’s office has also received information about at least one hospital that is storing untested kits. Robert Hamill with the Crime Victim Assistance Division said the office is ready to expand its reach if needed.

“If we are hearing that hospitals have them, then we’ll go to where we think they exist and survey them,” he said.

There are multiple explanations for why an untested rape kit may be in storage for years, according to Melohn. In some instances, a victim may have decided not to proceed with an investigation. She said the survey is an attempt to bring uniformity to the issue in Iowa.

“There’s a lot of valid reasons as to why they may not have been tested,” she said. “But there’s also reasons that we would want to capture if they should have been tested and weren’t.”

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