JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Attorney General’s Office says it hopes to determine by early next year how many untested rape kits are on shelves in Missouri, a first step in an effort to improve the state’s response to sexual assault.

Attorney General Josh Hawley’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Loree Anne Paradise, said the office is working with advocacy groups and others to determine the best way to find out how many kits have not been tested and what factors led to the backlog. The audit comes after reporting by the Columbia Missourian on untested kits and follows recommendations by a panel that studied how to improve the state’s response to sexual assault.

Rape kits contain DNA samples and other evidence secured during medical procedures conducted immediately after an attack. They can be used by law enforcement and prosecutors to catch and convict rapists. Hawley has said leaving kits untested can hinder work to bring assailants to justice.

Paradise said the office is looking for data from police, hospitals, crime labs and other places where the kits are stored. Once the audit is finished, she said the office will make recommendations on how to reduce the backlog.

“We are not interested in assigning blame,” Paradise said. “Instead, we want to determine if there is a problem, how big the problem is, and establish procedures that will eliminate this problem.”

Twenty-three other states have laws requiring audits of untested rape kits, according to national sexual and domestic violence advocacy organization Joyful Heart Foundation spokeswoman Lisa Winjum. Ten others have conducted or announced reviews by other means, she said, including Missouri.

Jennifer Carter Dochler, of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, said the audit is a critical first step in improving Missouri’s response to sexual assault. But she said identifying the underlying reason that kits go untested is at the root creating change.

“Whether or not we have a backlog is not the question,” Carter Dochler said. “It’s all about the reasons why.”

Inadequate storage, police choices on whether to send kits to labs for testing and survivors’ decisions not to move forward with criminal investigations likely are factors contributing to a backlog, Carter Dochler said. She added that moving more kits to crime labs for testing also likely will require more money to man the labs and prevent the backlog from growing bigger. The cost of testing rape kits varies.

Based on data that’s current through Nov. 1, testing had not begun on 56 sexual assault cases recently sent to labs under the Highway Patrol, said Patrol Capt. John Hotz. That doesn’t account for any untested kits at other state crime labs.

In addition to the audit, Carter Dochler said the state would benefit by creating centralized storage for kits and using a standard testing kit across the state. She also said incentivizing hospital staff to get training and volunteer to collect evidence — an emotionally draining job that can lead to high turnover — would help.