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Children’s rape kits kept at Atlanta hospitals for years, never tested

Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has been holding evidence of more than 200 suspected sexual assaults on children, sometimes for years, that has never been analyzed by authorities for DNA matches, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The hospital group says police neglected to pick up the so-called “rape kits” despite repeated notifications.

The 211 exams were performed on children ranging from 1 to 18 years old who went to Children’s three hospitals — Scottish Rite, Egleston and Hughes Spalding — from across North Georgia, the GBI said.

The oldest case is of a 13-year-old girl who who underwent the invasive rape exam in 2006. Now the GBI and child-protection advocates are trying to come up with a way to approach these victims again, years after they were traumatized by their assaults and then by the hospital examinations that followed.

GBI Director Vernon Keenan said Children’s Healthcare notified the GBI about the kits several months ago, and agents have since collected them.

“I cannot understand how a child is put through a medical exam and the process stops there,” Keenan said.

Ann Burdges of the Gwinnett County Sexual Assault & Children’s Advocacy Center, who has met with the GBI about how to approach victims so many years later, said, “It’s mind-boggling how far this problem goes. These are child cases. It’s not a case of did the victim want to report or did the victim not want to report? That’s off the table. These must be reported.”

Children’s executives said Friday the cases were reported to police, multiple times, sometimes for years. They said the hospital group has documentation of each contact. But the DeKalb and Gwinnett police departments said they knew nothing about the kits. And Atlanta police said the 14 kits that were associated with APD were mislabeled and were not Atlanta cases.

The episode recalls one last year in which The Atlanta Journal-Constitution discovered that more than 1,500 rape kits had piled up at Grady Memorial Hospital.

‘This just highlights the confusion’

It was impossible to reconcile Children’s Healthcare’s statement that it had made repeated notifications to police with the police departments’ statements that they had never heard of the kits.

“We do have documentation … that we spoke to the detective involved in the case,” Children’s chief nursing officer, Linda Cole, said on Friday afternoon. “We have gone back and looked at the charts. We know law enforcement has to be aware of … (each) case. We have a case number and the jurisdiction.”

Atlanta police spokeswoman Elizabeth Espy said APD’s special victims unit had determined late last year that the kits stored at Children’s were not APD cases. “The victim’s names did not match any of our records or they were mislabeled as APD, but they really belonged to another agency. We have no outstanding kits at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta,” Epsy said in an email.

Spokesmen for the other departments said they checked with their respective SVUs before issuing a statement.

“This just highlights the confusion and lack of clarity in dealing with these type cases,” Keenan said.

The hospital’s call to the GBI was apparently prompted by a new state law that set deadlines for when rape kits must be sent to the state’s forensic lab in Decatur. Agents picked up 81 kits from Hughes Spalding, 70 from Scottish Rite, 44 from Egleston, five directly from Children’s Healthcare and 11 that are not identified as coming from any particular facility.

Labels on GBI records linked most of the kits to 51 Georgia law enforcement agencies. The FBI and police from New York and Alabama also were identified on the paperwork with kits. At the same time, kits on eight children are labeled only with the victim’s name, but no law enforcement agency was connected to them.

The DeKalb County Police Department was noted on the labels on 28 rape kits, and the DeKalb County School District was the reporting agency for four others, the records show. The Gwinnett County Police Department had 12 kits at one of the hospitals.

Children’s said law enforcement had offered several reasons for not retrieving the DNA evidence. “Cases being closed, cases not being prosecuted, charges not being made or evidence not being required because a defendant pled guilty” were some of the reasons, according to an email.

“There is a weekly meeting to review evidence kits in our possession,” Children’s Healthcare wrote in an email. “We make repeated attempts to request that law enforcement retrieve the evidence kits, but … in some instances law enforcement may determine they do not have a need to take possession of an evidence kit.”

‘We’re going to see repeat offenders’

Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, who spearheaded the push to change the law, expected to find a number of forgotten rape kits on the shelves in hospital closets or in police evidence rooms, but he never envisioned so many that involved possible sexual assaults of children.

“It’s horrifying,” said Holcomb, whose bill to create the Pursuing Justice for Rape Victims Act was converted into the legislation sponsored by a Senate Democrat that ultimately became law on July 1.

“I want to know what happened,” Holcomb said. “Was it a matter of inertia or was it where law enforcement determined there was not a need to go forward? I’m willing to guess that there was a basis to move forward (with a prosecution) and the system just failed.”

Advocates wonder whether other cases might have been solved if the evidence in those kits had been entered into the national DNA database.

Keenan said the agency does not know how many more rape kits there may be at hospitals or in police evidence rooms. But the GBI should have a better idea in mid-August, the deadline by which law enforcement must provide a list of untested rape kits in their possession. The new law says all those kits must be at the State Crime Lab for analysis by the end of August.

“I would expect we’re going to see repeat offenders” once the DNA findings are loaded into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, Holcomb said. “There’s a lot more work to be done.”

In the meantime, GBI and victims’ advocates are discussing how to notify the children, some now adults, that the evidence collected from them is just now being tested.

Backlog at state lab of 3,200 kits

The 211 rape kits from Children’s Healthcare will be added to 3,200 rape kits the lab already has, a number that is expected to exceed 6,000 by the end of the year.

The 3,200 cases now on hand include about the 1,500 untested rape kits that that were stored at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital. The AJC reported that medical staff at Grady — home to the sole rape crisis center for Fulton County’s nearly 1 million residents — had collected samples of bodily fluids, hair and other evidence through special forensic exams that can be so invasive that they cause emotional trauma.

Yet police were not notified and the kits were never tested for DNA, even when victims requested the evidence be shared with police.

Passed in the final minutes of the 2016 legislative session, the 2016 rape-kit statute requires law enforcement to pick up kits used to collect DNA within 96 hours and to send the evidence to the state’s forensic lab within 30 days. While legislators did not allocate funds to cover the cost of testing, Georgia received a $2 million grant from a special program by the New York County District Attorney’s Office; half the funds will be diverted to test the kits from Grady.

Some say the problem at Grady could be attributed to law enforcement officers being unaware that the Crime Lab had changed its policy years ago with improvements in technology and no longer required investigators to have a suspect before they submitted rape kits for testing.

It was not clear whether that circumstance also applied to the kits at Children’s.

“Were the kits collected in error or was this a representation of actual crimes?” said Burdges of the Gwinnett County Sexual Assault & Children’s Advocacy Center. “They don’t know. But there are the other, bigger questions. … There are a lot of mysteries connected to this finding of kits. It’s shocking.”

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