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Once-shelved evidence of child sexual assaults yields DNA hits

Editor’s note: This is a result of reporting in 2015 by AJC investigative reporter Willoughby Mariano.

Original story: Evidence from at least 14 sexual assault kits long stored at Atlanta hospitals for children — and in some cases forgotten — matched DNA samples collected from convicted criminals and stored in a national data base.

Thirteen of those rape kits were collected at Hughes Spalding Hospital, which treats children and was affiliated with Grady Memorial Hospital until 2004. They were among hundreds of old kits that Grady had in storage for years and turned over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The 14th was one of 211 turned over to the GBI by Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

“We’re all frustrated with what it’s going to take” to test the hundreds of backlogged kits, Ann Burdges, executive director of the Gwinnett Sexual Assault and Children’s Advocacy Center, said. “It’s concerning.”

In recent months, the State Crime Lab has seen an uptick in the number of sexual assault evidence to be processed because of the discovery of so many old, untested rape kits and because of a change in the law last summer.

In 2015, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Grady, the state’s largest hospital, had stored in filed cabinets as many as 1,500 rape kits and never told police about them. At least 130 of them involved victims who wanted to report they had been sexually assaulted. The 1,500 Grady kits included some involving young patients at Hughes Spalding when the two hospitals were affiliated.

That discovery was the genesis of “The Pursuing Justice for Rape Victims Act” that took effect this year requiring law enforcement officials to collect rape kits from hospitals within 96 hours of the tests. The law also gave law enforcement agencies until the end of August to turn over to the State Crime Lab any stored rape kits.

The state’s forensic lab received a total of 541 kits in July. But in August the crime lab received 1,994 sexual assault evidence packages to be analyzed; some were from recent crimes but most were years old.

Out of the 211 kits from Children’s Healthcare, 84 were associated with closed cases, leaving the lab with the remaining 127 still to analyze.

“These cases are still being worked,” GBI Director Vernon Keenan said.

The remaining 1,200 Grady kits are being processed by a private lab while the ones from Children’s Healthcare were added to the almost 3,200 active cases the lab’s 40 scientists are processing.

“I wanted to make sure those cases were being addressed by the (law enforcement) agencies,” said Keenan, whose agency includes the State Crime Lab. “The answer I got back was law enforcement was pursuing these (cases) but there are problems with insufficient information. I did not want the cases to go uninvestigated and be forgotten.”

So far, the only explanation for the huge number of untested rape kits at Grady was the mistaken belief that turning over the evidence to police would violate federal privacy laws.

There have been no reasons offered for kits found at other police agencies throughout the state.

And CHOA said it had made multiple, unsuccessful attempts over the years to have police retrieve the evidence stored at its hospitals.

According to a memo obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the GBI discovered several reasons kits were left at Children’s Healthcare hospitals for years, sometimes as long as a decade.

“The initial problem identified was the limited amount of information on the kits, which led to indefinite answers,” the memo said. “These answers varied from law enforcement not being contacted per the request of the parent, kits just being done because a parent was concerned for the safety of the child even though it might have not been related to a sexual cause or the victim and his or her family was told to contact their local police when leaving the hospital but for one reason or another they may not have done so.”

Children’s Healthcare said in an email it reports “all suspected child sexual abuse” to law enforcement, but “in cases where there is no suspicion of child sexual abuse, we may encourage parents to contact law enforcement if they have other concerns.”

The GBI memo also said Children’s Healthcare needed to "retrieve more information on the victim and the case itself. At the same time, when law enforcement is contacted, they should collect more information to determine jurisdiction.”

The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office was given the results of hits from the Grady batch. The Fulton prosecutor’s office did not respond to questions about the status of the 18 picked up from Grady and already tested.

The case linked to the CHOA rape kit that resulted in a DNA hit may not be prosecuted.

DeKalb County Police Department spokesman Maj. Stephen Fore said evidence collected during an exam of a 14-year-old girl in 2011 was matched to a man now in prison. Detectives have not found the girl. The case number on her rape kit was linked to a report that she was a runaway and not the victim of a sexual assault.

“We have an offender. We don’t have a victim. That’s the problem,” Keenan said.

The GBI memo said changes in the system had been made and they seemed to be working.

For example, Children’s Healthcare said in a memo, it will contact the GBI if kits are not picked up 30 days after they have notified law enforcement and the GBI will retrieve them.

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