Survivors of sexual assault who choose to have a health provider collect evidence or perform a forensic exam typically don't hear what becomes of their evidence. That would change under a bill headed for Gov. Kathy Hochul's desk.

A bill that passed both houses of the New York Legislature last week will create an electronic database for survivors who get a rape kit and allow them to access information about their forensic evidence samples. Survivors of rape and sexual assault in New York currently have no way to track the location or status of their completed kit.

Amanda Wingle, deputy director of the Albany County Crime Victim and Sexual Violence Center, said the evidence collection process after a sexual assault takes four to six hours.

"When a survivor undergoes a sexual assault collection kit, it can be a very invasive process," Wingle said. "It involves a lot of evidence collection and involves poking and prodding and it can be a lot and it can be especially retraumatizing, especially for someone who just experienced sexual assault."

Many completed rape kits sit on the shelf for weeks, months or even years after collection. Some are discarded. Survivors would access the tracking system through an online portal or telephone number to learn the status of their evidence kit during processing. 

Lawmakers estimate about $400,000 will be committed to develop the tracker — a fraction of a percent of the state's total $220 billion budget.

A directive in the 2018 state budget required the Health Department and Office of Victims Services to jointly study a statewide tracking system. The study never happened.

"The fact that it fell through the cracks is really unacceptable, but it's also understandable because our previous governor and their administration really, frankly, didn't care much about survivors of sexual violence," said bill sponsor Sen. Alessandra Biaggi. "We finally have an opportunity right now where we have our first female governor who really cares about these kinds of issues and we have to make sure if they're not going to do it because the budget tells them to, that we are going to pass legislation that's going to do it."

Biaggi, a Bronx Democrat, said the electronic tracking system would give survivors control over their case and ease the burden of processing their trauma.

"We need to make sure we're not retraumatizing people in their reporting of rape," she said. "...Putting a tracking system in place really does allow for an individual who has had their power taken away form them or at least feels powerless in a situation like that start to regain power and start to be able to, frankly, have accountability and be part of the process and not have their evidence be lost along the way." 

DNA and records entered into the system are confidential and cannot be viewed or used by law enforcement to solve other crimes. Only the survivor and employee updating the tracking system can access information saved to it.

Police are not required to be contacted when a person goes to a New York health facility and reports a sexual assault. 

Law enforcement only have access to a sexual assault evidence kit with the victim's consent.

Advocates continue to fight for survivor resources that protect their personal or sensitive information.

Max Micallef, public policy director of New York State Coalition Against Sexual Assault, noted the importance of protecting the collected DNA evidence and prevents law enforcement agencies from using it to criminalize a survivor for an unrelated charge. San Francisco police recently came under fire for the same practice.

"We would not want that to happen here as it did in San Francisco, and we just want to make sure there's no loopholes, there's no confidentiality issues with this piece of legislation," Micallef said. "NYSCASA will always stand for trauma-informed care and restorative justice, and we're glad New York state officials are acknowledging this more and more."

Legislation to prohibit a victim's DNA from being added to the state DNA identification index, sponsored by Manhattan Democrat Sen. Brad Hoylman, did not advance through the Internet and Technology Committee this session.

​Biaggi expects Gov. Hochul to sign the measure to create the electronic tracking system into law.

The system must be up and running by Jan. 1, 2024.

The Department of Criminal Justice Services, state police and the New York State Coalition for Sexual Assault​ will work together to develop the tracker.

A similar electronic tracker has been implemented, or is in the process of being implemented, in 33 U.S. states and Washington D.C.