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June 09, 2016 12:10 PM

After Natasha Alexenko was raped and robbed at gunpoint in New York City in 1993, her first instinct was to try to wash the experience off her.

“It was an ordeal that changed my life forever,” she says. “And your first instinct after you’ve been assaulted – at least mine – was to take a hot shower.”

But she was living in New York as a college student and her older roommates told her to resist the urge: Contact the police, they told her, and get a rape kit.

Getting the rape kit taken, however, isn’t a painless process. Alexenko describes it as an “invasive gynecological exam.” The whole thing took four hours to complete.

“You’re victimized once, and then you’re going through this ordeal where someone is poking and prodding your body,” she says. “Basically, your body has become a crime scene.”

When it was over, Alexenko says that she had no doubt her kit would be tested. She’d had a positive perception of law enforcement her whole life, and when she didn’t hear back about the kit, she assumed it had been tested and that nothing had come of it.

Nearly a decade later, she found out she’d been wrong. Alexenko received a call from the office of the District Attorney of New York, telling her that they were just now getting around to testing her rape kit. Nine and a half years since the assault, the statute of limitations was almost up. She was asked to do a “John Doe indictment,” where she testified in front of a grand jury, so they could charge the DNA in her rape kit with the crime and override the statue of limitations. That was in 2003.

It was another four years before they finally found a match to the DNA in her kit: It belonged to a man, who, in the years since Alexenko’s rape, had been traveling across the country committing similar crimes.

“In the years my kit was sitting there, collecting dust, he was pretty much on a nationwide crime spree,” she says. “He was basically a public safety issue, going from state to state and harming others.”

Finally, nearly a decade and a half after her assault, Alexenko faced him in court, which she says was difficult, but ultimately worthwhile after he was put behind bars.

“When he was put away, I saw what it did to me and how it changed my life,” she says. “It almost took away that power that the man who raped me held over me, not only during the rape, but the years in between, when I was looking over my shoulder.”

A National Problem

Alexenko’s experience is hardly an isolated one. The rape kit backlog isn’t just a problem in New York. It wasn’t just a problem in Detroit, where a seven year plus effort has been undertaken to test the kits in their own backlog. It’s an issue throughout the country. In Memphis, there’s 12,000 untested kits. In Las Vegas and Cleveland, there are more than 4,000. Nationwide, there are 400,000 rape kits waiting to be tested.

“This is one of the most underfunded, underreported, underregarded social issues of our time,” Sarah Haacke Byrd, the managing director of the Joyful Heart Foundation, a non-profit that works with sexual assault survivors, tells PEOPLE. “We know we can do better for survivors, and do more to improve the safety of our communities across the country.”

Even in the past five years, as the national discussion around rape and sexual assault has picked up, the rape kit backlog is still not resolved. Vice President Joe Biden has spearheaded the It’s On Us campaign to help curb sexual assault on campus since September 2014. Biden and Lady Gaga took the stage at the Oscars earlier this year to raise awareness about the courage of survivors of sexual assault.

Lady Gaga, Julie Smolyansky with fellow survivors of sexual assault on stage at the Oscars
Kevin Winter/Getty

On stage, Lady Gaga was joined by Julie Smolyansky, the CEO of Lifeway Foods, executive producer of The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault and rape on campus, the founder of the advocacy organization Test400K – and a survivor of sexual assault herself. In April, Smolyansky hosted the first-ever national forum on the backlog in Chicago, where activists, non-profits, elected officials, forensics, DNA and technology experts discussed the issues at hand and worked to identify solutions.

“We’re seeing a tipping point and a change in culture,” Smolyansky says. “Women and girls are empowered, our communities are empowered to speak up against this outright negligence.”

Smolyansky’s non-profit takes aim at at a vexing problem: In the past 30 years, less than 20 percent of the country’s rape kit data has been analyzed, she says. And in most states, there’s no way for victims to track the progress of their rape kits, leading to situations like those of Alexenko, who had no idea her kit hadn’t been tested. Add to this the fact that it’s believed just 15.8 to 35 percent of sexual assaults are reported in the first place, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics – meaning a very low number of rapists and assailants are ever tried for their crimes.

Jurisdictions often cite lack of resources or personnel as the reason for these huge backlogs, Haacke Byrd says. But both she and Smolyansky agree that there’s no acceptable excuse for the backlog.

“It’s just a general deprioritization of the safety of women,” Smolyansky tells PEOPLE. “It’s sort of an afterthought. I would guess that if there was a 50/50 representation of women in law enforcement, the government, and positions of leadership and power, this would not happen.”

Adds Alexenko: “The rape kit backlog is a symptom of a bigger issue: That is a misunderstanding around victims of sexual assault.”

Julie Smolyansky at the conference in April
Courtesy Julie Smolyansky

This epidemic goes beyond just the victims who chose to get rape kits done. Without testing them, many serial perpetrators are left on the street to commit the same crime again and again – just like Alexenko’s rapist.

“Once I had my daughters, I said I’m not going to just sit there quietly and let this happen again for another generation,” Smolyansky says of launching Test400K.

How Detroit Is Leading the Fight

This is a national crisis, but oftentimes, the roots of solutions are local. Different states and cities have backlogs of varying sizes, but they’ve made progress in a variety of ways: Passing legislation to speed up the testing of the kits, raising funds to get the kits tested in the first place, and prosecuting perpetrators after the kits are tested.

The city of Detroit is at the forefront of this battle. Since discovering the city’s own backlog of over 11,000 rape kits in 2009, when the City of Detroit’s police department’s crime lab was consolidated into a greater facility for the entire state of Michigan. During a visit to Detroit crime lab to take inventory, a manager from Kym Worthy, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office, found the disturbing (but as Worthy admits, unsurprising) discovery of 11,000 untested kits.

Since then, Worthy, her team and the Detroit Crime Commission, who have partnered up to form the collaborative effort Enough SAID (Sexual Assault in Detroit) have made significant progress. In the nearly seven years since that day in 2009, 10,000 of those original 11,000 kits have been tested. Over 2600 DNA matches have been made and 750 potential serial rapists have been identified. And though this is the testing of the kits in Detroit, it has a national impact: These potential rapists are linked to crimes occurring in 40 states – from rape and sexual assault to property crimes – across the country.

“This is a consistent thread,” Alexenko says. “Whether the perpetrator is known or unknown to the victims, these people need to be behind bars.”

“Detroit is one of the best examples of what a city can do and why we should test every rape kit,” Haacke Byrd says. “It underscores what we know about sex offenders. They rape again and again, and they often move from state to state and community to community.”

It wasn’t, however, an easy or inexpensive fix for Detroit: Initial estimations told Worthy that it would cost $1200-$1500 per kit, $12-15 million total, to test the kits, and they believed the process could take as long as five years. Their estimations, it turns out, fell short, It has been seven years since that original discovery.

Early on, she sought out assistance from local elected officials. Initially, she says, they didn’t offer much, but as the project developed, the level of support it has received from the local government has grown exponentially. In the beginning, however, even her own department in the prosecutor’s office told there would be no additions to her budget to try and take on this issue.

“I was told if I wanted to tackle this, I had to find my own funding,” Worthy says. “I don’t think it should be my job to raise money to prosecute violent crimes. That should be a given.”

Instead, she went to businesspeople in the community who were more receptive in the project’s early days. As Worthy’s endeavor gained more attention, they started getting funds from states across the U.S., as well as foreign countries. One of their most fruitful partnerships has been with the Joyful Heart Foundation, Mariska Hartigay’s organization, which raised funding as well as providing support for Worthy’s office and their partners. The police officers and prosecutors working on the project provided funds, too.

The effort gained a huge boost when Worthy and her team negotiated the per kit testing rate down to $490, a move she says was “monumental” in working through the backlog – there’s no way, Worthy says, that they would have made it through as many kits as they have without it.

This win came on the heels of the June 2014 passage of HB 5445, the Sexual Assault Evidence Act. Support from the governor, which came four years into the project, Worthy says, helped the passage of this piece of legislation, which implements time standards in the testing of rape kits.

But testing, of course, is only half the battle. After the kits are tested, it’s up to prosecutors like Worthy to bring the suspects to justice. As of press time, Detroit’s testing had led to 42 prosecutions. Currently, there’s 259 kits under investigation, with thousands more waiting to be assigned to investigators. Part of the funds that have been raised have gone to hiring more investigators and prosecutors to handle these causes. Even when there’s a DNA match, Worthy says they still have to handle them like any case, which means they take significant time and resources to prosecute.

“Testing alone doesn’t bring justice to any victim at all, unless you investigate these cases and prosecute them,” Worthy says.

“The investigators have told me this is the most rewarding work they’ve ever done,” she adds. “These are police officers and detectives with 25 to 35 years of experience. And for them to say that this is the most rewarding work they’ve ever done is quite substantial.”

What Happens When After They’re Tested

Detroit has become the leader in the effort to end the sexual assault kit backlog across the country. But for those like Smolyansky and Worthy, testing the country’s 400,000 rape kits is just the first step. Bringing justice to these victims is a huge priority, in both Detroit and throughout the country, but so is changing the way rape kits are processed and handled going forward.

Both women expressed the need for a tracking system for the rape kits and their chain of custody.

“If you can track a package that you order online, whether it’s locally or nationally, you can go online and you can see where that package is,” Worthy says. “If you can do that, you ought to be able to track a rape kit through the criminal justice system.”

Since February 2015, Detroit has partnered with Dan Gilbert, the founder and chairman of Quicken Loans and UPS to set up a tracking service, which they’re set to take statewide. No other states have a tracking system in place, Worthy says, although others are starting to look into setting one up.

Now, other states and cities with similar epidemics have the opportunity to follow in Detroit’s footsteps. Joyful Heart is advocating for legislation in every state across the country, and it’s working. After years of neglect, this issue is getting attention – and action. In the past year, over 20 states have either passed legislation or are in the process of passing it to enact mandatory kit submission timelines.

“These state laws will expand what we know about the true extent of the number of untested rape kits in police storage facilities and crime labs,” Haacke Byrd says. “It’ll result in thousands of cases being investigated by law enforcement.”

Ultimately, Worthy says, it’s about the feeling of ownership and obligation: If cities know they have a backlog, they need to work on testing the kits. And if they aren’t sure, they need to check and see if they do.

“You can’t look at this as, ‘It didn’t happen on my watch,'” Worthy says. “It’s very important that police departments take ownership of this. It doesn’t help to sweep things under the rug.”

“I see that as my responsibility,” she says. “I don’t know how you can look at it any other way. I don’t know how you can back away from this issue.”

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