RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Attorney General Mark R. Herring and the Virginia Department of Forensic Science announced Wednesday morning that they have secured a $2 million federal grant to implement system-wide enhancements to the way Virginia handles sexual assaults, from evidence collection and testing all the way through to investigation and ongoing survivor support services.
“When I found out we had 2,000 kits sitting on the shelves around Virginia, I made it my mission to clear out that backlog and help survivors seek justice and closure,” said Attorney General Mark R. Herring. “This new investment is going to let us take those efforts to the next level, completely eliminating Virginia’s backlog of untested kits once and for all and making needed upgrades throughout our response to sexual violence. Survivors are going to be met with a more informed and compassionate response, cases against perpetrators will be stronger, and every survivor will know that their Commonwealth stands with them as they seek justice and healing from these brutal crimes.”
The funds come from the federal Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, and will support the next phase of the OAG and DFS’ ongoing PERK kit project.
“This grant complements the critical work of the PERK Work Group, which was created by Governor McAuliffe to address the issue of untested kits that had not been submitted for analysis,” said Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran. “As Chair of the Work Group, we were committed to developing a comprehensive procedure for the handling of kits that would assure the victims of these heinous crimes that their PERKs would be timely submitted for analysis.”
Testing any Remaining PERKs
Attorney General Herring and DFS previously secured a $1.4 million grant for an ongoing project to test more than 2,000 untested Physical Evidence Recovery Kits (PERKs) that law enforcement agencies had not submitted to DFS for testing as of June 30, 2014.
A new change in state law will ensure that kits collected on or after July 1, 2016 are properly submitted to DFS for analysis. The new grant provides funding for the analysis of any untested kits that were collected in the gap between 2014 and the time the new law went into effect. A statewide inventory is underway to determine how many untested kits from this two-year period are in the possession of law enforcement agencies. Once all the kits are identified, they will be submitted for analysis.
New Statewide PERK Tracking System
The SAKI grant will also allow the Department of Forensic Science to implement a new PERK tracking system. With this system, PERKs will be tracked at each step in the process, including their distribution as uncollected kits to the collection sites (e.g., hospitals) through collection, transfer to law enforcement, submission to the laboratory for analysis, and return to the law enforcement agency for storage. All agencies handling kits will be granted access in order to update the status of each kit, and victims may use the system to check the status of the analysis of their kits. By tracking the status of kits entered into the system, DFS will be able to notify stakeholders when collected kits have not been appropriately submitted for analysis.
New Personnel to Support Victims, Coordinate Testing of PERKs, and to Process Kits
The grant will also help pay for personnel to help facilitate the processing of PERKs and support survivors in the difficult period following an assault. The grant will support:
- A dedicated survivor support specialist in the Attorney General’s Office will provide resources and support to survivors as they work through the often difficult process of participating in a criminal investigation while beginning to heal from their experience.
- A research assistant in DFS to aid in the development of a streamlined screening process for PERKs that will expedite analysis and expand its capacity to process kits.
- A project manager within the Attorney General’s Office to oversee all ongoing efforts to collect and test PERKs, as well as training and technology upgrades.
Training to Support Survivors and Successful Prosecutions
Virginia’s grant will expand the availability of specialized training for Virginia law enforcement, including:
Trauma Informed Sexual Assault Investigation Training -This training helps officers and investigators understand how specific traumatic experiences impact survivor memory, reactions, and behavior, and how officer interpretation of behavior impacts sexual assault investigations.
Identifying and Preventing Gender Bias in Law Enforcement Response to Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence -This training helps law enforcement professionals recognize and control biases, assumptions, and stereotypes to ensure that all survivors are treated with respect and in ways that encourage survivors to participate in an investigation and provide important information.