Bureau of Justice Assistance SAKI Funded Research

Sexual Assault Kit Initiative logo

The Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) is a Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA)-funded, multisite initiative that aims to address the problem of backlogged SAKs. The Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office (CCPO) received SAKI funds under the 2015 and 2016 solicitations. The Begun Center is the research partner on both awards. This research includes:

Process Evaluation

A process evaluation was conducted in collaboration with the Task Force and funded from the 2015 SAKI award in order to provide recommendations and research-based “promising practices” for other jurisdictions that are in the process of tackling their backlog of unsubmitted SAKs. A process evaluation is an assessment of how a program is implemented. Process evaluations focus on the “process” of a program’s activities and output—the who, what, when, and why.  The briefs from the process evaluation are as follows:

Changing Culture Through Sharing Space

This brief explores the efficacy of having a shared space for a multidisciplinary team that is responsible for tackling the issue of unsubmitted SAKs in their community. Our research finds that being in close proximity for extended periods of time has many positive outcomes including engendering a cultural shift that can break through disciplinary silos leading to more positive experiences for victims and successful prosecutions. The findings and recommendations detailed in this brief can be applicable to jurisdictions that are currently tackling or beginning to address their jurisdiction’s unsubmitted SAKs, regardless of whether those efforts are currently being funded under BJA SAKI grants.

Describing and Quantifying How Previously Unsubmitted SAKS Advance From Testing To Disposition

In this research brief, we detail the process by which previously unsubmitted SAKs advance through four phases—testing, investigation, prosecution, and disposition—on the Cuyahoga County SAK Task Force (Task Force).  We describe the key steps in the process, providing statistics on the number of cases that proceed or fail to proceed as well as the reasons why cases fail to proceed.

The purpose of this research brief is to aid other jurisdictions that are processing their previously unsubmitted SAKs in visualizing the processing from testing to disposition, collecting performance measures at each step in the process, and establishing comparable statistics across jurisdictions. This will aid in forecasting how many SAKs will likely include DNA hits, how many investigations should be completed, and how many should result in indictments and convictions, which can then be used for allocating resources, informing end-dates, communicating updates and expectations, and, hopefully, helping ensure no new “backlog” develops.  Additionally, we have provided statistics in this brief to aid other jurisdictions in knowing what comes after testing.

Perceptions Of Why The Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Exists And Recommendations For Improving Practice

Previous research has addressed the logistical and structural factors that contributed to the backlog. This research brief approaches this issue from a different perspective—focusing instead on the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force (Task Force) members’ perceptions of the reasons for the backlog. We detail in the brief perceptions of what created the backlog, which provides an important glimpse into what was not working about the process according to Task Force members. Through their analyses and critiques, we can observe the shifts in culture and practice that have occurred, due in part to the passage of time and larger societal changes, but mainly derive from Task Force member’s participation in this specialized Task Force created to address the backlog.

Examination of SAK case files

In early 2015, as part of the SAK Pilot Research Project (see below for more details), the Cuyahoga County SAK Research Project team began to examine case files of the previously unsubmitted kits. To date, the team has gathered details on nearly 500 of these unsubmitted cases capturing extensive details about the rape kit, the sexual assault, the offender, the victim, the investigation, and the prosecution.

This is a unique project that captures detailed, historical data over an almost 20-year span of time for a large number of sexual assaults in Cuyahoga County that were never prosecuted—for the purposes of informing and reforming current policy and practice.  The 2015 and 2016 BJA SAKI awards support the continued examination of the SAK case files. The following brief outlines the findings from this project:

Do Serial Sex Offenders Maintain A Consistent Modus Operandi?

It is a common belief among law enforcement and prosecutors that serial sex offenders maintain a consistent modus operandi (MO), or offending pattern.  The standard investigative practices in many law enforcement agencies are to either investigate a sexual assault allegation as an isolated event or use the offender’s MO to link other sexual assaults possibly committed by that offender. However, recent research from the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit research team at Case Western Reserve University is calling this practice into question.

In our recently published paper in the Journal of Criminal Justice “Offending patterns for serial sex offenders identified via the DNA testing of previously unsubmitted sexual assault kits,” we present findings showing that serial sex offenders frequently assault both strangers and nonstrangers, and often drastically vary their MO across assaults.

In this paper, we discuss our findings and why these findings contradict standard practices for investigating sexual assault, provide recommendations for changing how law enforcement investigates sexual assault based on these findings, and include a discussion of the larger implications of this research for collecting and testing kits and following up on the results of the testing.

Victim Advocacy

Impact of Victim Advocacy Integration on Cold Case Investigations: Lessons Learned from the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force

In this research brief, we assess the integration of victim advocacy on the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force (Task Force). The Task Force created a multidisciplinary team (MDT) to focus solely on cold cases of sexual assaults, and the MDT uniquely incorporates victim advocates. The research team observed how the victim advocates influenced the MDT to assess (a) the integration of the victim advocates into a Task Force, (b) how well victim-centered behaviors and attitudes were exhibited by all members of the Task Force, and (c) whether people believed the integration of advocates or victim-centeredness impacted the Task Force outcomes. The findings highlight the utility of including victim advocates as full team members and how their participation influences investigation and prosecution. Recommendations are provided for other jurisdictions interested in implementing victim advocates onto their cold case investigations.