Screening for Success
Written by Michelle Chernicoff   

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In July 2015, USA Today published a wide-ranging investigative story about the existence of sexual assault kit (SAK) backlogs in agencies across the country. The resulting public outcry has been heard and, from coast to coast, lawmakers are actively pushing legislation to address the issue plaguing many agencies.

Millions of dollars have been allocated and new bills are either enacted or proposed in 35 states to support SAK testing reform. Some examples:

  • In Kentucky, all evidence testing must be completed within 60 days by July 1, 2020. The law also requires sexual assault investigation training by 2017.
  • Lawmakers in Washington state and Massachusetts want to require agencies to install and enforce a tracking system on all sexual assault kits.
  • In April, the governor of Florida signed a bill (SB636) to increase salaries for analysts, improve technology within the state crime lab, and enforce a strict 30-day testing timeline for submitted kits.

Well-trained and competitively paid analysts, enforced tracking and submission deadlines, and up-to-date technology are all keys to answering the question: What needs to be immediately improved to address the backlog? But one other question remains: Once the current backlog is fixed, how do we prevent another one from developing?

To get ahead of new regulations or reforms, agencies need to construct solutions that will survive beyond a one-time budget increase and produce methods that will address functionality issues within the laboratory workflow. In Palm Beach and several other counties in Florida, the answer has been biological screening programs.

“Change is vital to addressing lab backlog issues,” explained Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Crime Laboratory Director Cecelia Crouse, PhD. “Hanging on to a process that is crippling the efficiency as well as the morale of the staff is not a recipe for success.”

Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Forensic Biological Unit (FBU) established a Biological Processing Laboratory (BPL) in 2012. It is separate from the FBU and serves several cities within the county, screening evidence prior to submission for full analysis. The project was funded by National Institute of Justice grant monies, local funding, and fees paid by communities sharing in the services. A first year report of the FBU and BPL casework initiative showed the work had resulted in a 50-percent decrease in the time it takes to accept, process and report casework results.

Crouse said the process changes are already creating an impact. Before the BPL was established, the turnaround time was around 30 days, from submission to report. Then the case was sent for DNA analysis, adding another 30 to 45 days.

Under the BPL change, turnaround time for screening is less than four days. It’s down to just two weeks for DNA analysis. Thanks to these new processes, Palm Beach County already meets Florida’s new time limits for testing.

“We have a software program that keeps track of the status of every case and every sample,” says Crouse. “We are now upgrading the software so that if a case is submitted and accepted for analysis, the clock starts ticking automatically and we will be able to get weekly status checks. It is important someone or something is tracking the process. Metrics can be soporific to most analysts but vital to maintaining progress.”

While Crouse is a proponent of crime laboratories partnering with a screening laboratory or establishing an internal screening program, she suggests making sure it answers the right question for the agency. “It seems as though the connection between backlog and cases not submitted to the laboratory for analysis is not clear. The SB636 (FL) addresses cases not submitted—that is, cases the laboratory did not know existed.” Communicating with the submitting agencies to strengthen documentation and submission processes will ensure the definition of backlog is clear and testing timeframes can be coordinated.

Building a screening program

Agency structure and policies vary, but with a well-executed and properly resourced plan in place, many communities can benefit from adopting a screening laboratory program.

“Through our training and audit programs, we have talked with analysts in nearly every DNA laboratory in the country,” said NFSTC CEO Kevin Lothridge. “We’ve seen some really innovative and successful approaches to this issue when agencies work together.”

NFSTC has identified five keys to building a successful screening program:

1) All local agencies should be included in the initial planning of the program.

The crime lab and agencies served need to establish new processes to include screening as the first step for biological evidence. Protocols for evidence handling may need to be adjusted to ensure steps are established, understood and documented for a new method and handling requirements by all affected jurisdictions. The laboratory and screening program should share the same protocol for accreditation, consistency and reporting.

2) Identify a location for screening.

Although biological screening can take significantly longer than the actual analysis of the identified stains, it does not call for the same level of laboratory equipment and special rooms required for full DNA testing. At a minimum, the location should have a secure evidence storage area, computer access and connectivity, a dark room for alternate light source screening, reagent storage and a laboratory area for testing. The screening team should have a minimum of two trained technicians for reporting and redundancy.

3) Identify and train screening personnel.

The screening team should be considered an integral part of the DNA process. Team members with scientific backgrounds will not only be better prepared to follow appropriate protocols, but can provide court testimony, high quality communication with laboratory analysts and proper report preparation. Making additional STEM jobs available is always a bonus in any community.

4) Consider ways to increase flexibility.

Rural communities might consider a mobile screening team or trailer-based screening unit. This would offer services on site and not require potentially sensitive case evidence to be out of the possession of the agency. To reduce turnaround time, consider outsourcing case and report review tasks to a DNA contractor or testing facility. Securing this type of support strengthens report information by providing third-party confirmation without the full cost of private testing.

5) Report to community leaders.

Provide regular reporting on the outcomes of the screening program to agencies and community leaders. Educating them on the status and success screening can result in increased understanding of the process, establish trust in the local agencies and secure better overall support.

With all eyes on the SAK backlog and potential funding from local, state, and Federal government, it is a good time for many agencies to assess processes and propose changes to their current system.


For More Information

To learn more about setting up a screening program, DNA and forensic biological screening training, or other forensic training, visit the NFSTC wesbite: www.nfstc.org

About the Author

For nearly two years, Michelle Chernicoff has been a part of the communications department at NFSTC. With more than a decade of experience in marketing and media production, she specializes in audience outreach and public relations.

 
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