Taking next step in sexual assault research

Close-up photo showing gloved hands holding samples in vials

Case Western Reserve researchers awarded nearly $1 million in federal grants to continue work on unsolved sexual assaults cases

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have been awarded nearly $1 million in federal grants to continue analyzing rape kits to help solve thousands of sexual assault cases in Northeast Ohio.

Building on past successes in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve’s Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences will partner with the city of Akron to collect and analyze information on more than 1,800 untested sexual assault kits (SAKs), supported by a $425,000 grant from the US. Department of Justice.

The idea is to identify patterns of offender behavior to help the Akron Police Department respond to sexual assaults, said Rachel Lovell, a research assistant professor with the university’s Begun Center and the project’s lead researcher.

“By working with police, we can help change how sexual assaults are handled in the criminal justice system and how the system and society view sexual assaults, victims and offenders,” Lovell said.

Rachel Lovell
Rachel Lovell, senior research associate with the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at the university’s Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences

Hundreds of thousands of SAKs, also known as “rape kits,” have languished, untested in evidence storage facilities across the country. Medical professionals use rape kits to collect and preserve evidence from a victim of sexual assault, with the goal of taking rapists off the street.

There were 5,000 untested kits from 1993 through 2009 in Cuyahoga County alone. To date, the initiative has completed investigations on about two-thirds of the cases and has identified more than 830 serial sex offenders, resulting in more than 750 indictments.

Case Western Reserve’s research-available in a series of briefs-is based on coding police and investigative reports, DNA lab reports and criminal histories of victims and defendants.

Keeping the momentum going

The DNA testing helped paint a better picture of sexual offenders, thanks to unprecedented access granted by the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.

Known as the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force, the project was created by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2015 to use evidence from backlogged sexual assault kits to reform how law enforcement investigates cases.

Additionally, with two Department of Justice awards totaling $528,000, Lovell’s team will continue its efforts in Cuyahoga County to collect and analyze data from these sexual assaults. They’ll also study “owed DNA,” a term used to describe instances of victims’ DNA that hasn’t been properly entered into databases in accordance with Ohio law.

“It’s a big expansion of our work,” Lovell said. “We’re working to not only code the remaining untested sexual assault kits, but to inform and improve policy. We have a unique role here to help.”

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