Donation expedites processing of Nome sexual assault kits
In an effort to get justice for survivors of sexual assault, three corporations donated nearly $40,000 to the City of Nome to expedite the processing of sexual assault kits.
Kawerak, Inc, Norton Sound Health Corporation and Norton Sound Economic Development Corporation together donated $38, 295 to the City to pay for kits from Nome cases to be analyzed by a private lab rather than the State’s crime lab, which can take a year to process a kit. The kits will be sent to BODE Technology, a private lab in Virginia that specializes in rapid results. Because of the donation, the wait time for results will be substantially reduced.
Paul Kosto, evidence custodian for the Nome Police Department, said that there are about twelve kits that will be sent to BODE. He said, NPD sends its kits to the State lab immediately, so there are currently no kits at the station. Kosto explained that there are two kinds of kits: one for the victim and one for the suspect. The money will go toward processing victim kits.
According to Kosto, the kits Nome has sent to Anchorage are at different places in the “queue” for testing in the State lab. The ones that have not yet been touched will be sent to BODE Technology, likely within the next few days. “I fully expect them to be shipped from Anchorage and on their way by the end of the week,” Kosto said on Monday.
The impetus for the donation was the extremely slow rate of kit processing.
Currently, NPD sends kits to the State of Alaska’s Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory, which conducts the DNA testing. However, according to Kosto, because “everyone in the state” sends their cases to the lab, there is a wait time to receive results. It can take up to a year for a kit to be processed, which puts the justice system at a standstill. “A year is an unacceptable amount of time or sexual assault survivors to wait,” reads a Kawerak press release.
BODE can process the kits in 30 to 60 days; but the quicker the turnaround, the higher the price. The expedited testing is expensive and Kosto said he was not sure that the funds will cover the cost of processing all twelve. In that case, “the City may need to put in funding as well,” he said.
According to Kawerak President and CEO Melanie Bahnke, the cost of expediting the kits is worth it. “We stand with survivors of assault and will do our part to ensure that they receive the services and the justice they deserve,” said Bahnke.
Public safety is a top priority for the Kawerak Board of Directors, Bahnke said, because “people deserve to feel safe in their own communities.”
After learning of the long wait time for results, Kawerak coordinated the donation effort. The donation is timely because reports of sexual assault are rising in Nome. Last year, there were 88 reports of sexual assault, a seven percent increase from 2018. In mid-September of this year, Nome has already surpassed the 2019 total, with 98 cases of sexual assault already reported in 2020. This is perhaps related to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused higher rates of domestic violence crimes.
Given rising rates of sexual assault as well as the high number of unprocessed sexual assault kits, Bahnke said Kawerak saw a threat to justice that needed to be addressed.
The kits can play an extremely important role in the prosecution of sexual assault cases, Kosto said, because the DNA evidence can directly and concretely connect a perpetrator to a crime. But if the results are delayed, it is difficult to move forward with the legal case. Therefore, Bahnke said, expediting the processing of sexual assault kits will in turn speed up the criminal justice process. The hope, according to Bahnke, is that if more perpetrators are held accountable, the number of sexual assault cases will decline. “Kawerak wants to help be part of the solution of breaking this vicious cycle, and we also want to ensure that victims are afforded justice,” she said.
Both Kawerak and NSHC donated $14, 147.50, while NSEDC donated $10,000. Bahnke explained that this is a one-time donation and that in the future Kawerak will devote resources to helping the State crime lab process kits more quickly. Kosto said that the State lab is currently working to process kits more quickly, hoping to get the turnaround down to 60 days.