Utah learns it cannot treat sexual assault victims as afterthoughts

Tuesday , August 01, 2017 - 4:30 AM

Rick Bowmer

This Feb. 8, 2017, photo, Utah State Crime Lab Director Jay Henry holds a sexual assault evidence collection kit following a committee meeting at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

STANDARD-EXAMINER EDITORIAL BOARD

Fifteen years.

Through 2014, that’s how long some Northern Utah rape kits sat on the shelf, waiting to be tested.

Fifteen years.

Maybe, as a state, we’ve finally learned we cannot treat sexual assault victims as afterthoughts.

With a $1.9 million grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance, part of the U.S. Justice Department, Salt Lake County started a pilot program in 2015 to address sexual assault cases resulting from evidence found in untested rape kits. It’s called SAKI — the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

SAKI resulted in the review of 71 backlogged sexual assaults. As a result, said program analyst Krystal Hazlett, prosecutors filed charges in nine cases.

Perhaps just as important, SAKI includes a vital new resource for Utah sexual assault victims — a hotline that allows them to follow their rape kits through the testing process.

By calling 801-893-1145, you’ll reach Lauren DeVries, a victim advocate with the Department of Public Safety. No matter where you live in Utah, DeVries will help you track your sexual assault kit, work with you to develop safety and privacy plans and answer your questions.

SAKI also funds treatment for survivors traumatized when their cases are reopened.

“It’s often hard enough for the victims of sexual assault to come forward, it’s such a heinous crime,” said Utah’s public safety commissioner, Keith 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.”

House Bill 200 became law this session, slamming the door on Utah’s history as a state that ignores sexual assault victims. Sponsored by Rep. Angela Romero, a Salt Lake City Democrat, the law mandates the testing of all backlogged kits by 2018.

It also requires the state to implement a rape kit tracking system.

Thanks to $1.2 million in new funding, the state crime lab hired additional forensic analysts, who tested 980 of the 1,727 backlogged kits, Squires said.

The Ogden Police Department eliminated its 88-kit backlog in 2015, said Lt. Tim Scott.

“We’ve been working on this project for a number of years, 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,” Scott told Nadia Pflaum, a reporter for the Standard-Examiner.

But unfortunately, there will be new kits to test. And when there are, Utahns can turn to a new resource for help as their rape kits undergo testing.

It took too long, but Utah finally learned it cannot treat sexual assault victims as afterthoughts.