WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) – Cases are piling up at the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center (RFSC). The director said that the backlog and understaffing were only part of the problem.
The backlog impacts everything from autopsies, drug identification cases, and the toxicology lab.
This increase is also due to the COVID-19 and the fentanyl epidemic.
Facility director Dr Shelly Steadman said it was overwhelming for staff but could also cause problems for public safety.
From 2019 to 2021, the coroner’s office saw a 34 percent increase in cases, as did biotests, and in 2022, the center began reducing the amount of out-of-county cases to help with the backlog.
“We’ve managed to capture about $120,000 that can be spent over the next few years to help send cases,” said Dr. Steadman.
These are dollar grants that can help refer cases to private facilities to ease the backlog at RFSC.
Much of that backlog is due to an increase in fentanyl overdoses and trials.
Dr. Steadman said it creates a different dynamic.
“If there’s one drug that’s simple, if there’s 13 of them, that’s a different story,” said Dr. Steadman. He added, “Sometimes it’s so high that they’re out of the dynamic range of the analytical system, so samples have to be diluted and retested to accurately quantify those drug levels.”
While fentanyl cases are prioritized for testing, there are still vacancies and some new employees undergo months of training.
Dr. Steadman said the center is at capacity.
“If you had more staff, where would they sit, where would their computer go, where would their workbench be,” Dr. Steadman asked.
He said the center has been on the list of capital improvement projects for Sedgwick County since 2014, but relief is expected this year.
“A responsibility we feel we must help fund to take care of our local crime scenes,” said Sedgwick County Commissioner Pete Meitzner.
A $7 million expansion to the DNA lab is slated to begin this summer.
“When cases are pending, and those are rape cases or burglary cases, some of those are serial crimes in nature. Crimes can happen while those cases are waiting to be tested,” Dr. Steadman said.
Dr. Steadman is confident as new staff are fully trained and more begin this summer, they can achieve a level of stabilization to catch up and prevent the backlog from impacting public safety.
Commissioner Meitzner said the project should be completed within a year or two.