Backlog, staffing shortages, space all causing issues at Sedgwick County Forensic Science Center

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WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Cases are piling up at the Sedgwick County Regional Forensic Science Center (RFSC). The director said a backlog and staffing shortage are just part of the problem.

The backlog is impacting everything from autopsies, drug ID cases, and the toxicology lab.

This increase is also due to COVID-19 and the fentanyl epidemic.

The director of the facility, Dr. Shelly Steadman, said it’s overwhelming for staff but also can cause issues for public safety.

From 2019 to 2021, the coroner’s office saw a 34% increase in cases, as did biological testing, and in 2022 the center started reducing the amount of out of county cases to help with the backlog.

“We’ve been successful in capturing about $120,000 that can be spent over the course of the next few years to help send cases out,” said Dr. Steadman.

Those are grant dollars that can help send cases to private facilities to alleviate the backlog at RFSC.

Much of that backlog is due to an increase in fentanyl overdoses and evidence.

Dr. Steadman said it creates a different dynamic.

“If there is one drug that is straightforward, if there is 13, that is a different story,” said Dr. Steadman. She added, “Sometimes it is so high they are out of the dynamic range of the analytical system, so the samples have to be diluted and retested to accurately quantitate those drug levels.”

While fentanyl cases are being prioritized for testing, there are still vacant positions, and some new employees are in months-long training.

Dr. Steadman said the center is at maximum capacity.

“If I had more staffing, where would they sit, where would their computer go, where would their workbench be,” asked Dr. Steadman.

She said the center has been on the Capital Improvement Project list for Sedgwick County since 2014, but relief is expected this year.

“A responsibility that we feel we need to 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 expected to start 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,” said Dr. Steadman.

Dr. Steadman is hopeful as new staff gets fully trained and more start this summer, they can reach a stabilization level to catch up and prevent the backlog from impacting public safety.

Commissioner Meitzner said the project should be done within a year or two.

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