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Laura Seitz, KSL

Site helps sex assault survivors track rape kits

By Annie Knox, KSL | Posted - Jun 6th, 2018 @ 9:42pm


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TAYLORSVILLE — More than eight years after forensic nurses collected evidence in her sexual assault case, Alyson Ainscough found out the rape kit had not been sent to Utah's crime lab.

"It was a kit that had sat on the shelf and fallen through the cracks," Ainscough said. She learned the 2007 kit had been forgotten when she called to ask about its status — a conversation she believes led police to forward it for forensic analysis.

On Wednesday, public safety managers announced a new tool they hope will help prevent similar experiences for others who report sexual assaults. A recently created website allows victims to track the progress of DNA evidence in their cases much like they would follow the path of a mail delivery online.

"It can feel intimidating or daunting to be the one pursuing information or feeling like you have to push your case along," said Ainscough, who lived in Salt Lake City before moving to the Pacific Northwest. "There are some periods of time where I didn't want to call. Having a resource where I could — on my own time — have looked up information and tracked the status would have been helpful and comforting to me." She said her case still is pending.

By typing in numbers associated with their evidence kits and their birth dates, survivors of sexual assault can track the boxes of evidence as they move from a hospital to a lab for DNA analysis and then to police for review.

"For survivors, information is extremely empowering and can aid in healing," said Lauren DeVries, victim advocate at the Utah Department of Public Safety. She said forensic nurses, police and crime lab employees will update the status of the kit as they receive it, allowing the progress to be followed in real-time.

The new online portal is the latest phase of a state effort to improve handling of sexual assault cases in the wake of widespread criticism over a backlog of untested kits. It also one provision of a 2017 Utah law that mandated testing of all kits in cases where victims choose to provide statements to police.

The measure's sponsor, Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, said she will push for additional funding for the initiative.

"What I want to tell victims out there is that we care about you and we want to make sure that justice is served," Romero said.

Still, a backlog in testing remains.

Roughly 3,300 kits that previously were collecting dust over several years have been submitted to a private lab for analysis, said Lauren DeVries, victim advocate at the Utah Department of Public Safety. Of those, about 2,200 have finished testing and gone back to police for review, she said.

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About 1,900 more recently collected kits are now awaiting analysis at the state crime lab, according to figures provided by the department Wednesday.

The law sets a 30-day deadline for police to send the kits to the state crime lab, starting on the day a victim files a report of sexual assault. It imposes the same time limit on testing of kits. But Col. Brian Redd, the head of the State Bureau of Investigation, said testing may continue to take up to a year as new employees are trained and the backlog is addressed.

The launch of the site comes a year after the creation of a hotline for victims to call and ask about the progress of their kit. Only kits that are still housed at the crime lab can be found in the online system, but DeVries said older cases can be tracked down by calling the hotline, 801-893-1145.

Utah's handling of the evidence came under fire in 2014 when a statewide survey revealed a backlog of more than 2,600 sexual assault kits. The number later grew to about 3,300 as the crime lab received more kits from police agencies than it had originally anticipated, DPS officers said Wednesday.

A different 2016 study from Brigham Young University revealed that one-third of sexual assault evidence collected from 2010 to 2013 had been processed by the end of 2015. It also found that Utah police departments took roughly 60 percent longer to send the kits in for testing compared to other parts of the country.

The new site is not the only step toward more accountability. The initiative has also provided training for police on understanding how trauma affects victims and how to best respond to their concerns.

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.

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