by the Family Services Sexual Assault Center
During the past few years, there’s been a significant amount of controversy regarding the backlog of sexual-assault kits in Wisconsin that have gone untested. In 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Justice (DOJ) received $2 million in grant funding to address the backlog of 6,837 unsubmitted sexual-assault kits (SAK) stored at law-enforcement facilities and hospitals around the state.
These kits weren’t all untested because of negligence or lack of funding. According to the website for the Wisconsin Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, wisaki.doj.wi.gov:
• 19 percent of cases were resolved without the need to test
• 15 percent of victims chose not to participate in the criminal-justice process
• 12 percent of victims reported to the police but later changed their mind
There are circumstances in which victims already know who assaulted them, which is common because three out of four rapes are committed by someone the victim knows. If the victim can identify the attacker to law enforcement, then testing that kit isn’t always necessary. That doesn’t mean the kit is without use, however, because it could still be tested and used if it were needed for additional evidence.
Some kits remain untested at the victims’ request. For example, if the victim does not want to make a report to law enforcement, testing the kit for evidence would go against the victim’s wishes. This is some victims’ preference and choice because they don’t want to go through investigation and the potential court process, which can be overwhelming and time consuming.
Another aspect of the $2 million grants awarded to DOJ was creating a multidisciplinary team (MDT) approach for testing and notification. Many of the original backlogged kits were tested; however, the MDT – composed of law-enforcement personnel, hospital personnel, prosecutors, crime-lab analysts and victim advocates – worked to create a protocol and plan to prioritize a victim-centered approach to gather background information about why the kit was not submitted upon collection.
As a result of the victim-centered approach, not all of the previously unsubmitted kits were tested. The MDT was tasked with “discerning the victim’s wishes of whether or not to engage with the criminal-justice system.” Professionals involved with notifying victims were trained and made aware of the traumatic effect that sexual assault has on a person, and they approached each SAK notification in a victim-centered, trauma-informed and protective manner regarding the victim’s confidentiality and privacy.
Additionally, the MDT worked to address each victim in a respectful way, described as “respecting the survivor’s choice not to engage; attending to the survivor’s emotional safety, as well as their physical safety; empowering the survivor by offering options and providing ongoing information, resources, services and support; and educating responding professionals and the general community about the impact of trauma on survivors’ health and well-being.”
To prevent another backlog, legislation has been implemented to have hospitals submit kits to state testing facilities within 72 hours after collecting sexual-assault evidence, and then kits would be held up to 10 years or until the victim chooses to report to law enforcement. In cases in which victims report to law enforcement at the time of the evidence collection, the hospital is responsible for contacting law enforcement to collect the kits; then law enforcement is responsible for sending the kits to the state crime lab for analysis.
To learn more about Door County’s and Wisconsin’s efforts to prevent another backlog, visit wisaki.doj.wi.gov.