WASHINGTON (WUSA9/USA TODAY) -- After experiencing the horrific crime of rape, victims often undergo an invasive four-hour exam where a nurse collects DNA evidence from their bodies for a kit that helps police find the rapist.
Tens of thousands of those kits sit untested all across the country, letting rapists go free.
"If there was an ideal family, I guess we had that life," said Debbie Smith, a rape victim from Williamsburg, Virginia.
That changed for Smith when a stranger dragged her into the woods and raped her.
"I just went into total shock. I couldn't make myself believe what was going on," she explained.
Smith reported the crime and went to the hospital for a rape exam.
"It destroys what you even have left of your self-esteem, but you do it because you know that it will give you hope," she said.
Hope that when the kit is tested, scientists will find a DNA profile that can be entered into a national DNA database.
Yet a USA TODAY - TEGNA investigation found that police departments nationwide are failing to give victims their chance for justice. Records obtained from 800 police agencies reveal they are holding more than 70,000 untested rape kits. The primary reason is cost.
"I will tell you this is very personal issue for me. My rape kit sat on the shelf for years. And was ultimately destroyed," said Laura Neuman, a former Anne Arundel County executive.
Just one break can dole out justice exponentially. At 18, Neuman was raped at gunpoint. The crime went unsolved for 19 years, until Neuman insisted that police reopen the case. Days later, finger prints lead them to her rapist. Neuman learned that if her rape kit had been tested right away, countless women could have been saved from her heartache.
"And we got a match on 12 more cases. Those cases would never have been solved had I not pursued getting my case reopened," Neuman said.
"The very least we can do is test that kit. For them to have gone through that exam and take that and put it behind a locked door is a travesty," said Debbie Smith.
On average, it costs $1,500 to test a rape kit. Congress just approved $41 million in grants to help police clear rape kit backlogs.
Our news partners at USA TODAY found that many police departments have no idea how many untested rape kits they have in their property rooms. Out of all 50 states, only 10 are legally required to track them. Virginia is the only state in our area among the 10.