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SALT LAKE CITY — An initiative to test unsubmitted sexual assault kits is set to expand statewide this year, including the launch of a new website designed to help victims track their kit's progress.
The advancement is thanks to a new $2.2 million federal grant that the project received in October, Krystal Hazlett, coordinator for the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, said Tuesday during an update on the initiative's progress.
"This will increase our outreach from the 11 agencies in Salt Lake County to more than 130 agencies that may have unsubmitted sexual assault kits," Hazlett said.
Last summer, the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative added a hotline for victims to call and inquire about the status of their kits. The hotline will continue operating until the online tracker launches, Hazlett said. A therapeutic treatment fund for victims was also established.
Col. Brian Redd, the head of the State Bureau of Investigations, noted that the website will also include resources for the public to check on the initiative's progress statewide.
As the operation expands, the state is developing training materials with the Utah Prosecution Council and Peace Officer Standards and Training, Redd said.
"There are a lot of victims of sexual assault, and it's difficult for them to come forward when this happens to them," Redd said. "When you stop and think about the individual going through this type of case, it lends to the importance of the issue, and the importance that we put on how we approach these victims and how we address them."
Redd also praised the initiative's impact of "(removing) criminals off of our streets and out of our communities that are harming other individuals."
Since it was first funded to begin work in Salt Lake County in 2015, 2,258 previously unsubmitted sexual assault kits have been identified and sent to the Utah State Crime Lab for DNA testing, Hazlett said. Of those, 1,763 kits have been tested, leading to the addition of 701 DNA profiles in the nationwide CODIS database. An additional 171 kits matched with a DNA profile already in the database.
Once a kit is tested, it is reviewed by the initiative's case review committee. If a case is deemed a candidate for prosecution, officers contact the victim in person to ask whether they would like further investigation to be done, Hazlett said.
So far, 156 cases stemming from newly tested kits have been reviewed by the committee, which includes law enforcement, prosecutors, a sexual assault nurse examiner and victim advocates. From there, nine new criminal cases have been filed by the Salt Lake District Attorney's Office, Hazlett said.
Utah's handling of sexual assault kits came under fire in 2014 when a statewide survey found law enforcement agencies had 2,690 submitted sexual assault kits that had not been processed.
A study released in 2016 by Brigham Young University went on to find that only about one-third of the samples taken from 2010 to 2013 had been processed by the end of 2015. It also discovered that law enforcement in Utah was taking about 60 percent longer than other parts of the country to send the kits in for testing.
Last year, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, passed a measure through the Utah Legislature requiring all law enforcement in the state to submit sexual assault kits for testing within 30 days of receiving them. The requirement takes effect this year.
Victims can check on the status of their sexual assault kits through the initiative's hotline, managed by victim advocate Lauren DeVries, by calling 801-893-1145 or emailing email@example.com.
Those who have experienced sexual abuse or assault can be connected to trained advocates through Utah's statewide 24-hour Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line at 888-421-1100.