Rape kit backlog shrinking, support for victims growing, state officials report

Thursday , July 20, 2017 - 5:15 AM2 comments

NADIA PFLAUM, Standard-Examiner staff

TAYLORSVILLE — Utah’s backlog of untested sexual assault kits is shrinking thanks to resources that have helped bail out Salt Lake County, where nearly 60 percent of the state’s 2,690 backlogged forensic kits sat untested for years.

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The strides made by a pilot program in Salt Lake County may extend to counties northward, depending on a new round of grants to be announced this fall.

Utah Public Safety Commissioner Keith Squires announced Wednesday, July 19, that 980 out of 1,727 previously untested sexual assault kits from agencies all over Utah have now been tested, and 409 DNA profiles have been uploaded to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), resulting in 144 matched profiles. 

Those tests were completed at the lab of an out-of-state vendor, Bode Cellmark Forensics, so that the crime lab’s routine workload wouldn’t suffer delays, according to lab director Jay Henry. Testing is still ongoing for 636 kits that are still with the vendor. 

“It shows you that there is real justice that is available if this work gets done,” said Sim Gill, Salt Lake County District Attorney.

Such success stems from the Utah Legislature’s passage House Bill 200 in March, which mandates a state rape kit tracking system and requires that the backlog of untested sexual assault kits be eliminated entirely by 2018. Lawmakers also earmarked $1.2 million to hire more forensic analysts at the crime lab. 

Wednesday’s announcement at the crime lab included an introduction to the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), a pilot program in Salt Lake County funded through a $1.9 million federal grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2015. Through SAKI, 71 backlogged sexual assault cases have been reviewed, and Salt Lake County prosecutors have filed 9 criminal cases, said program analyst Krystal Hazlett. 

Via SAKI, Hazlett introduced a new resource for survivors of sexual assault statewide: a number to call for information on the status of their case’s evidence as it winds through the testing process.

That number — 801-893-1145 — rings Lauren DeVries, Victim Advocate with the Department of Public Safety. DeVries will assist survivors in tracking down a sexual assault kit in the system, answering questions and helping to create safety and privacy plans. 

These new resources come as a mea culpa to victims of sexual assault who may have suffered trauma upon learning their kits went untested for years. The SAKI program also devotes funds for treatment and therapy for survivors who may be re-traumatized upon notification that their long-shelved kit has been tested, and a perpetrator identified. 

“It’s often hard enough for the victims of sexual assault to come forward, it’s such a heinous crime,” said Squires. “Victims of aggravated assault will come forward 62 percent of the time, whereas victims of sexual assault — rape — only 32 percent of the time.”

Ogden City Police’s Lt. Tim Scott said that he wouldn’t expect a lot of CODIS hits on cases from his department to come from this effort, because Ogden Police cleared their 88-case backlog in 2015

“We’ve been working on this project for a number of years,” Scott said, “getting our kits down to the crime lab, doing our own internal audits, clearing cases. I checked just recently, and we don’t have a backlog to speak of.”

In Davis County, prosecutor Troy Rawlings said that to-date, his office has not received any information or evidence corresponding to any of their cases. The DNA database hits they’ve seen most recently were from cases the crime lab works routinely, not from the backlog-reduction effort, he said. 

Salt Lake County’s pilot program could expand to northeastern counties this fall, when a new batch of SAKI grantees will be announced through the Bureau of Justice Assistance. 

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