End the Backlog of Untested Rape Kits in the U.S.

by Joyful Heart Foundation

Collaborating to Bring Expertise, Guidance and a National Perspective

Partnership in Detroit

“Last year, Joyful Heart's CEO, Maile Zambuto, said, ‘Detroit, we will not forget you.’ And I am here to say that she kept her promise. Joyful Heart now provides us with expertise, guidance and a national perspective. They are helping to find ways to secure the funds needed to test the remaining kits and ensuring that all efforts to end this atrocity, including the creation of a victim notification process, remain victim-centered.”
—Kym Worthy, Wayne County Prosecutor

In 2011, Joyful Heart joined in partnership with the city of Detroit, Michigan to participate in a groundbreaking project funded by the National Institute of Justice Strategic Approaches to Sexual Assault Kit Evidence action-research grant. We are part of a multidisciplinary team of police, prosecutors,  crime lab personnel, city leaders and advocates who are analyzing the causes of Detroit’s backlog of 11,000 untested rape kits and developing and  implementing a plan for testing. As testing begins, we are already seeing powerful examples of how testing rape kits can solve crime and bring healing and justice to survivors. For example, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office has already identified 21 potential serial rapists from the first 153 rape kits  that have been tested and entered into CODIS, the national DNA database.

Victim Notification

Despite expectations that law enforcement will notify a survivor when they ultimately test her rape kit, we have learned that many jurisdictions do not have formal processes for notification. Most survivors never receive any information about their rape kits or their cases if their kits have become part of the backlog. If they do, the process is often piecemeal and fails to account for possible re-traumatization and lasting personal and family consequences that may come with it.

In conjunction with our work on the rape kit backlog, we are drawing attention to the need to ensure that survivors whose cases are years old—sometimes decades—are notified that their kits are part of the backlog, a process we refer to as victim notification. We are conducting groundbreaking research on how  jurisdictions across the country have and should approach victim notification. Since our research began,  we have conducted 84 interviews with advocates, members of law enforcement, prosecutors, researchers, clinicians, crime lab analysts, policymakers and survivors in 36 jurisdictions across the United States. In the coming year, we will host a two-day retreat and focus group for the specific purpose of giving voice to the experiences of hundreds of survivors who reported  their assaults and whose kits were part of a backlog.

We plan to issue a report on our findings, which will  serve as the first comprehensive resource on how jurisdictions across the country are implementing victim notification programs, the lessons learned in developing those programs and best practices for notification based on the specifics of the case. Our intention is to use and share this research so that we end the rape kit backlog with reforms that are just, compassionate and survivor-centered.

"There are times [when] it feels very old, and there are times when it feels like it happened yesterday. If I could know that the kit was  available and could be tested even 25 years later and the DNA could be identified…I would be able to have that information [for] the rest of my life.”
—Survivor who never received information about her kit

Since the last time we sent you an update, it seems like every day, we see another story about a jurisdiction struggling with a backlog of untested rape kits, another story of a survivor whose kit was tested after decades and linked to the DNA of perpetrator still out in the community, even another story about a person who had been behind bars for years and was exonerated after the rape kit in his case was finally tested.

These stories remind us why our work to end the backlog of untested rape kits—our work to create lasting, victim-centered reform and change our collective response to sexual assault—is so important.

We’ve told you a bit about our research on victim notification, and we’d like to take this opportunity to share even more with you about our most recent work in this area. Joyful Heart is continuing to make incredible progress, with the goal to end the backlog of untested rape kits and revolutionize the way we respond to survivors of sexual assault. Just last month, we presented preliminary findings from our victim notification research to the collaborative multidisciplinary team of prosecutors, police, advocates and government officials who are working on Detroit’s backlog of over 11,000 untested rape kits.

This research is the first of its kind in the nation, and the report that will come from it—due out in January 2013—will be the only comprehensive resource on what jurisdictions across the country are doing to implement victim notification programs. And as we speak with prosecutors, police, advocates and survivors across the country, it’s become clear that the need for this resource cannot be underestimated.

In addition to working on this report, Joyful Heart hosted a two-day retreat just last week for the team in Detroit to take time away from their daily lives and come together to develop initial guidelines for Detroit’s approach to victim notification. We facilitated an in-depth discussion of all the considerations and factors involved in this process. The team sought to answer questions like: why and when survivors whose kits have been part of the backlog should be notified of the status of their case and the DNA evidence? Who is responsible for being in touch with survivors, from the initial contact to the very end of the process? What resources might be most helpful to survivors throughout this process and how can we ensure they have access to them?

The voices of those survivors directly affected by the backlog will also be heard and represented in our report. In the fall, Joyful Heart will host a similar retreat for survivors of sexual assault to discuss their experiences with notification and what they would like to see in a victim notification program. 

All this information will be used to develop comprehensive and victim-centered standards of care in Detroit’s victim notification policies and procedures and to guide jurisdictions across the country grappling with their own backlogs.

We look forward to sharing all of our findings and the final report with you. In the meantime, please continue to help us in this important work. Consider setting up a recurring donation or, if you don’t have the means to give more at this time, support us by forwarding our GlobalGiving project to a friend or organizing an online fundraiser to generate much-needed funds and awareness for our work.

Until the next time,


GG Project Manager

We are happy to share with you that we have raised more than $5,500 to continue our work to end the backlog of untested rape kits and bring healing and justice to survivors of sexual assault. 

We know that rape kit reform takes time—truly lasting change in the way our criminal justice system and we as a community respond to sexual violence will not come overnight. In our last report, we gave you an introduction to our work in Detroit to end the city’s backlog of nearly 11,000 untested rape kits and support our collaborative partners through our Heal the Healers program. 

Our commitment to end Detroit’s backlog of untested rape kits extends beyond supporting the wellness of police, social workers and prosecutors and today, we’d like to share another brief snapshot of what your funding is making possible.

Research on Victim Notification and the Rape Kit Backlog

With the goal of engaging and empowering survivors in the criminal justice system during rape kit reform, we are conducting critical research on victim notification, which is the process of being in contact with and updating survivors on the status of their rape kit evidence. Our research is not just informing our work in Detroit, but will also aid jurisdictions across the country that are working to end their own backlogs.

We have seen that when jurisdictions end their backlogs, arrest rates double and more perpetrators are convicted. Survivors experience healing and justice, perpetrators are held accountable and sexual violence is prevented.

Once a rape kit is turned over to police custody, the survivor generally does not have a legal right to be informed of the status of this evidence. Police are not obligated to share whether the kit is sitting in a storage facility or in line to be tested, or whether the evidence contained in it has linked to a perpetrator. It may be years—if at all—before a survivor hears from law enforcement about the rape kit, particularly in jurisdictions with very large rape kit backlogs.

Part of our role in Detroit is to help discover, navigate and implement best practices for conducting victim notification. For the past several months, Joyful Heart’s team has been conducting research on victim notification practices and procedures throughout the country that can serve as a model for Detroit as kits from thousands of survivors are tested.

There is very little written on the topic of victim notification, especially as it relates to a rape kit backlog. The significance of this research therefore has the potential to be great. With dozens of primary documents collected from agencies across the country and over 50 interviews with police officers, advocates, prosecutors, government officials, trauma experts and survivors—and many more still to come—we plan to share the findings of this research within the year. Our goal is for the results to serve as a resource—the first of its kind—to Detroit and jurisdictions across the country working to enact victim-centered rape kit reform.

“There are times [when] it feels very old, and there are times when it feels like it happened yesterday. If I could know that the kit was available and could be tested even 25 years later, and the DNA could be identified as belonging to a certain person or persons, I would be able to have that information [for] the rest of my life.”

"I have visions of my kit sitting on a shelf, of those police officers tearing up my report. That has an effect. I would want to know if the kit was tested, resources were used and someone did what they were supposed to. In some small way, it mattered.”

– Survivors who have never been notified about the status of their rape kits

Your donations are making it possible for us to conduct this research and create lasting rape kit reform—step by step, community by community. We thank you for continuing to stand with us in making a difference in the way we respond to sexual violence in the United States.

Dear Joyful Hearts,

Thank you for you generous support over these past three months!  With your help, we’ve raised nearly $5,000 to help end the backlog of untested rape kits in the United States. We’d like to share with you some recent accomplishments that we’ve made towards reaching our goal to end the backlog, specifically as they relate to our work in Detroit, Michigan.

In 2010, Joyful Heart was asked by the National Institute of Justice and sexual assault teams in Detroit, including the Police Department, District Attorney’s Office and Detroit’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program to participate in the National Institute of Justice’s Strategic Approaches to Sexual Assault Kit Evidence action-research grant.

Over the last three years, Detroit has faced a dire economic, political and legal landscape, which has exacerbated an already significant backlog of untested kits. In 2008, the city’s Crime Lab shut down, resulting in the discovery of over 10,000 untested rape kits. The city’s unemployment rate is now officially 30% with city officials suggesting it is, in fact, closer to 50%. Nearly 50% of Detroit’s population is illiterate, and in 2011, Detroit ranked as the number one city for violent crimes in the United States, including rape.

Since we joined this collaborative partnership, we have helped to engage key stakeholders to identify factors that contributed to Detroit’s backlog and have begun to develop best practices for keeping victims informed and updated on the status of their backlogged kits.  

In addition to our advocacy work in Detroit, we are committed to ensuring the wellness of our collaborative partners.  This October, we offered our Heal the Healers programs to over 200 of individuals (law enforcement professionals, prosecutors, social workers, sexual assault nurses) who are working at our partner organizations Detroit. Heal the Healers workshops in Detroit are designed specifically to reduce the affects of vicarious trauma for those working in the sexual assault movement and to foster open communication and collaboration among the various stakeholders committed to eradicating Detroit’s backlog.  

Our Heal the Healers programs: educate professionals about vicarious trauma; shed light on how each of us can be impacted by witnessing and responding to the suffering of others; help professionals explore their own trauma exposure response; introduce self-care tools and practices; and provide positive connections with other professionals to create a community of support. 


About Project Reports

Project Reports on GlobalGiving are posted directly to globalgiving.org by Project Leaders as they are completed, generally every 3-4 months. To protect the integrity of these documents, GlobalGiving does not alter them; therefore you may find some language or formatting issues.

If you donate to this project or have donated to this project, you will get an e-mail when this project posts a report. You can also subscribe for reports via e-mail without donating.

Get Reports via Email

We'll only email you new reports and updates about this project.

Organization Information

Joyful Heart Foundation

Location: New York, NY - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.joyfulheartfoundation.org
Project Leader:
Joanna Colangelo
New York, NY United States

Funded Project!

Combined with other sources of funding, this project raised enough money to fund the outlined activities and is no longer accepting donations.

Still want to help?

Find another project in United States or in Women and Girls that needs your help.
Find a Project

Learn more about GlobalGiving

Teenage Science Students
Vetting +
Due Diligence


Woman Holding a Gift Card
Gift Cards

Young Girl with a Bicycle

Sign up for the GlobalGiving Newsletter

WARNING: Javascript is currently disabled or is not available in your browser. GlobalGiving makes extensive use of Javascript and will not function properly with Javascript disabled. Please enable Javascript and refresh this page.