Digging Deeper: "Untested" - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Digging Deeper: "Untested"

Chippewa Valley (WQOW) - Nearly 6,000 untested sexual assault kits have been discovered at hospitals and law enforcement offices across Wisconsin. The inventory was first identified three years ago. Today, the backlog is still significant.

$4 million in grant money has spurred the state to develop a log with more information about the catalog of kits and a strategy for getting them tested. Despite that, the Wisconsin Department of Justice says less than 100 have been tested.

It's led to some pointed and tough questions. At worst, sexual assault victims are left to assume they are a low priority. At best, there's been an error in evidence tracking, or could the kits be piling up due to outdated testing practices? 

Inside the Eau Claire Police Department, 16,000 pieces of evidence are stored.

"It's a priority to make sure that we're doing the right things with that evidence," said Matt Rokus with the Eau Claire Police Department.

The archive includes 144 untested sexual assault kits. It's a small slice of the catalog across the state. In March, the statewide inventory showed 5,800 untested kits are in the custody of law enforcement agencies and hospitals. The backlog was first categorized in 2014 and three years later, it remains significant.

Lawmakers have stayed on the sidelines, not offering policy legislation. The backlog was not addressed directly in Governor Scott Walker's (R-WI) two year state budget proposal. But News 18 did ask the governor about DOJ request he included, that would provide $75-million to replace the state crime lab in Milwaukee.

"My hope would be that the DOJ would use that aggressively to be on top of that and other crime lab related issues," Gov. Walker said.

Of the nearly 6,000 untested kits, the DOJ said over 4,000 meet the criteria to be tested. As of May, the DOJ admitted that only around 60 kits have been tested.

And the question remains: how did so many go untested in the first place?

Rokus gave News 18 a snapshot of what is happening locally: "Each case we spent a considerable amount of time discussing the case details with a representative from the Wisconsin DOJ. Very soon we will be submitting 21 additional kits for testing by the state crime lab," he said.

The department said 80 percent of the 140 sexual assault kits they currently have will stay locked away, untested. There are several reasons why a kit would not meet the criteria to be tested: if the victim did not report an assault to police, therefore, not consenting to have the kit tested; if the offender was found not guilty; or if the offender has already been convicted and is currently serving a sentence.

"They do contain DNA evidence so we need to retain them for the entire period of time that person is incarcerated," Rokus said.

A kit collected from someone who wants to remain anonymous poses a different challenge. Up until now, there had been no way to test evidence and identify the suspect, while continuing to protect the victim's anonymity. 

"A lot of people are traumatized they don't know what to do. this is a life changing event for them," said Jennifer Morris, a registered nurse with Mayo Clinic Health System.

Traditionally, a kit collected from a victim who chose not to pursue legal action would be held until the statute of limitations expired. Once that happens, the kit is destroyed and no testing will be done.

"Sometimes people want an exam, sometimes they just need a resource to talk to," Morris said.

A sexual assault nurse examiner, often called a "SANE RN", receives special training from the DOJ and is one of the first people a victim may speak with. They are well-versed in the new guidelines, which was rolled out by the DOJ this year, and meant to prevent an accumulation of untested sexual assault kits in the future.

There are three paths a victim can take once they arrive at the hospital:

Option one is when the victim wants a medical exam, but does not want to report to law enforcement or want a sexual assault kit collected. In those cases, there is no test.

Option two is when the victim wants a medical exam, wants evidence collected, wants to report the incident to police and wants the kit tested. In those cases, the test goes to law enforcement.

Option three is where changes have been made. Health care professionals say it can be hard to make decisions in the aftermath of a sexual assault. Victims have been through a traumatic experience and it's possible they many have been drugged of intoxicated. This option allows for a medical exam and a sexual assault kit is collected anonymously. That kit is sent directly to the state crime lab, where it will be held for ten years. Any any point during that decade, the victim can choose to initiate the testing process.

"This new process I think is going to help a lot of people say, 'Hey, I don't know yet, but I am going to get the kit done', and just go from there and that gives them 10 years to decide," Morris said.

The DOJ said 3,800 kits have been designated for testing. So far, the state crime lab has tested 13. The DOJ sent another 800 to a private lab, but only 50 of those have been tested thus far. The DOJ said the testing process can take as long as six months.

Click the link for more information on the state's By Your Side campaign.

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