PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Standing in a cramped and cluttered state forensic laboratory, Cara Lupino is surrounded by dozens of sexual assault evidence collection kits – more commonly known as rape kits.

The forensic biology supervisor and her team use the Department of Health lab — just down the street from the Rhode Island State House – to analyze DNA swabs, clothing, fingernail scrapings and a host of other potential evidence collected by health care providers as part of sexual assault investigations.

“We prioritize sexual assaults because of the nature of the crime,” Lupino told Target 12 during a recent interview at the lab. “The victim has been victimized and underwent this invasive collection for the rape kit, so we feel that the Department of Health owes it to the victim to make sure that we process them as quickly as we can and as thoroughly as we can.”

The lab is currently in the process of implementing a new law, passed by the General Assembly in June, that aims to prevent future backlogs and ensure rape kits are properly accounted for. The measure comes at the same time that Rhode Island’s largest hospital group is launching a new program to better serve victims and collect the kits.

Rhode Island doesn’t currently have a backlog of rape kits, making it somewhat unique in the United States, as rape kit backlogs have challenged cities and states across the country for years. For example, thousands of untested rape kits collected by American law enforcement over the past decade were never sent to crime labs, according to the national advocacy group RAINN.

And the untested evidence often comes with real-life and potentially damaging repercussions, as was recently made evident in Bristol County, Massachusetts, where a grand jury recently indicted Dylan Ponte, 28, accusing him of raping a 16-year-old girl in 2012.

At the time of the alleged rape, the survivor went to St. Luke’s Hospital in New Bedford where she submitted a rape kit. But the evidence was one of more than 7,000 kits from throughout Massachusetts that “was never fully tested by the state lab,” according to Bristol County District Attorney Thomas Quinn III.

In 2019, Quinn obtained a grant to start testing nearly 1,150 previously untested rape kits in Bristol County at a private lab. Because Ponte’s DNA was in the system due to recent arrests for domestic violence in Florida, it matched the newly tested kit.

“If we did not obtain the grant to have all these kits fully tested, this case may never have been solved and the statute of limitations could have expired,” Quinn said this past summer.

Untested vs. backlog

In Rhode Island, Lupino said the state’s choice to prioritize sexual assault kits means they are tested within 30 to 60 days after the lab receives a police report tied to a kit. That means the lab does not test all of the rape kits collected by medical providers, as most victims do not report the crime to police.

Oftentimes, a sexual assault survivor will go through the evidence collection – a process that takes about three hours on average, and must be done quickly after the assault – but will not immediately report a crime to law enforcement.

“The majority of victims of sexual assault know their perpetrator, they have a relationship with them,” said Dr. Susan Duffy, an emergency medicine physician at Hasbro Children’s Hospital. Duffy has conducted hundreds of rape kits for patients over the years.

“They really don’t know what they want to do,” she explained. “There’s guilt involved. There’s trauma involved.”

According to data provided by the Department of Health, Rhode Island received an average of 230 rape kits during each of the past three calendar years, but only tested about 37% of them.

The remaining untested kits are tucked away for at least a decade, and there are currently thousands of them sitting in storage dating back to the 1970s. If a sexual assault survivor decides to file a police report, the evidence is opened up and analyzed as part of the investigation.

“That period of time is really important,” Duffy said. “So victims can process it, think about it, get through the trauma and really make a careful and thoughtful decision.”

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Once a kit is analyzed, the Department of Health then submits evidence into a national database, where the DNA profile is checked against other samples to see if they match suspects from other criminal investigations. The results and evidence are sent to law enforcement, which can use the information to pursue prosecutions. (The database is rechecked for matches each night, as new evidence is getting submitted into the system on a daily basis.)

Unlike some other states, rape kits in Rhode Island go directly from hospitals to the state health lab in Providence, not to police departments first. Cutting out that “middle man,” Lupino said, also helps avoid a backlog. There were just five kits, all from September, waiting to be tested when Target 12 visited the lab.

The state’s approach to rape kit analysis does come with a cost; because rape kits are prioritized, there is a backlog of evidence waiting to be tested for some lesser crimes.

“In this laboratory we set up a priority system, so sexual assault kits actually get one of the highest priorities for testing, along with homicides,” Lupino said. “And then we go down to violent crimes and property crimes.”

Lupino said there’s roughly a six- to nine-month backlog for testing evidence tied to those lesser crimes.

‘Every single person should have the tools when they are ready’

Rhode Island lawmakers and health care providers have been working in recent years to improve the sexual assault evidence collection process, which could result in more prosecutions.

State Rep. Jay Edwards and state Sen. Tiara Mack, both Democrats, championed legislation enacted this year that prohibits the state from having a backlog and codifies into law how rape kits should be handled.

For example, the law requires untested kits — the ones where the victim has not yet gone to police — be stored for at least 10 years. Lupino said the Health Department already does this, but the practice was previously based on storage space rather than a legal requirement.

Edwards said while the Health Department already hits the 90-day testing deadlines established in the law, nothing was stopping any future administration from changing their practices. Similar legislation, backed by national advocates, have been making their way through state legislatures across the country.

“Women’s rights seem to be under assault nationwide,” Edwards said. “Rhode Island had nothing codified.”

The new law also requires R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha to create a “bill of rights” for sexual assault survivors, which will lay out how victims can get their results, and guarantee they have a right to have their rape kit tested later – even if they don’t report a crime right away.

“There’s a host of reasons why someone might wait,” Mack told Target 12. “But I think every single person should have the tools when they are ready, whether it’s weeks, months, years or decades.”  

Neronha’s office expects to complete the bill of rights by the end of the year.

“As progress continues on this important project, our office remains committed in our work to diligently prosecute sexual offenders, keep victims fully informed about their cases once they are charged, and protect and advocate for victims,” said Brian Hodge, a spokesperson for Neronha.

Meanwhile, at the state’s large hospital system – Lifespan – Dr. Duffy and chief nursing officer Cindy Danner recently secured a $600,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to create the state’s first “SAFE” program, which stands for “Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner.”

Lifespan matched the funding and hired nurse Lori Clements to run the program.

The program aims to launch this fall with 30 new forensic examiners who will go through rigorous training on the proper collection of kits and to provide trauma-focused emotional support to patients. They will then get dispatched to Lifespan’s various emergency departments – including at Hasbro, The Miriam, Newport and Rhode Island Hospitals – as needed when someone comes in seeking care for sexual assault.

“The care is happening already in emergency rooms at Lifespan, but this program is going to streamline it to provide this on-call team of specially trained nurses and advanced practice providers to come in and provide care to these patients,” she said. (Interested health care workers can apply here.)

Duffy, who said there are SAFE programs in all 49 other states, said she’s hopeful this will both improve the collection of evidence and prevent additional strain on emergency rooms, as the rape kit process can take several hours to complete.

“I can tell you that the emergency departments are thrilled,” Duffy said. “So this comes from a cry from the emergency departments who want to advocate and care for their patients in the best manner.”

Duffy said she hopes the program will make more victims comfortable with seeking care, and ultimately with reporting the crime to police.

Back at the state lab, Lupino said her team is bullish that the SAFE program will improve and help standardize the collection of evidence in sexual assault cases, which she said will likely improve the investigative process and potentially affect adjudications of rape cases in Rhode Island.

“Sometimes the kit isn’t collected the same way as we prefer, so having these trained [nurses] on call will definitely help get the kits more consistent,” Lupino said.

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for 12 News. Connect with him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Steph Machado (smachado@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter covering Providence, politics and more for 12 News. Connect with her on Twitter and on Facebook.