Maryland lets sexual assault victims keep track of evidence via a bar code

WTOP's John Domen explains how one victim's testimony may have changed how rape kits get processed and tracked going forward

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — For Angela Wharton, Maryland’s new statewide tracking system for sexual assault evidence represents a ray of hope, enabling survivors to monitor the data online.

Wharton was raped in 1996 and described the trauma she experienced more than 20 years later, when she was informed all the evidence, including her untested kit, had been destroyed by local authorities.

What could have brought her assailant to justice, she said, had been “callously discarded less than two years after the rape, leaving me feeling betrayed, violated and utterly powerless.”

On Thursday, standing with Gov. Wes Moore and Attorney General Anthony Brown, she praised the completion of a new online system that will let victims anonymously keep track of the evidence.

“With this new tracking system, survivors are no longer left in the dark wondering about the fate of their rape kits or the progress of their cases,” Wharton said. “Transparency and accountability are now within reach, offering a glimmer of hope to those of us who have long been denied a voice and a chance to seek justice.” The Associated Press typically does not identify someone who was the victim of sexual assault unless they go public with their story.

The system is now up and running in the state. As of Thursday, 14 people already had logged into the system 90 times, Brown said.

“What does it tell you? Survivors want action,” Brown said. “They expect all of us to do our jobs. The tracking program is going to give survivors the transparency, accountability, dignity, and support they deserve.”

Through the new system, called Track-Kit, unique bar codes will be added to all sexual assault evidence kits collected in the state. Once a forensic exam is completed at a hospital, the victim will be given a bar code number and password. Law enforcement will scan the bar code when they assume custody of the kit.

In the coming months, bar codes also will be applied to all existing kits, including those maintained in police storage units or crime labs.

“For survivors, that means you can go into the tracking system 24/7, 365 days a year, armed with your bar code number and password and track the progress of your kit, from the hospital, through law enforcement, to the lab for testing then back to the appropriate agency,” Brown said.

About 40 states and the District of Columbia have tracking systems, with most of them launching in the last five years, said Ilse Knecht, a policy and advocacy director for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a New York-based national organization that focuses on changing society’s response to sexual assault. She called them “critical to the rape kit reform efforts that we’ve been working on for the last decade.”

“Basically these systems provide transparency and accountability within the rape kit handling process, so what was really a process before that was in the dark has now come into the light,” Knecht said.

Moore said the new online system will help build trust “between our communities and the forces that are sworn to protect, and today we will make Maryland safer by strengthening that trust.”

“Then we can start building towards a culture of teamwork and transparency and trust, and this kind of tracking system has already been stood up in red states and in blue states, from North Carolina to Ohio to Oklahoma, and now it’s Maryland’s time to get this done,” Moore said.

State Sen. Shelly Hettleman said a measure approved last year that sets out the requirements of the tracking system requires information from kits to be entered into the new system by December of next year.

Maryland has been working on a backlog of untested rape kits. In 2022, the state had a backlog of 5,000 untested sexual assault evidence kits.

Carisa Hatfield, assistant attorney general and counsel for the Maryland Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Policy and Funding Committee, said the state is working on addressing the backlog.

“We have both state and federal funding to clear that backlog,” Hatfield said. “I unfortunately can’t give you an exact day, time, when that will occur, but it is an ongoing process that we are working on expeditiously.”

Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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