SPECIAL REPORT: In Support of Survivors: Improvements to SAFE Kit Testing

Published: May. 28, 2019 at 6:04 PM CDT
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Different measures have been brought to the table in Kentucky to increase the support and efficiency of the systems used in the aftermath of a sexual assault.

"When we have layers of systems working together," said Melissa Whitley, the executive director of Hope Harbor, "it's going to be better.

We're going to see more people coming forward."

Across America,

it's estimated that sexual assault happens every 92 seconds, a moment that often leads to a painful road of recovery for those victimized.

New measures being rolled out now by Kentucky State Police and elected officials in 2019 are in an effort to continue the progress made over recent years in bringing justice to survivors.

"Last year, we only had 2,000 folks who went in for a forensic examination in a hospital emergency room. I can't even tell you how many sexual assaults actually have occurred, but probably ten times that many. That's what we think, is probably 10 to 1 of reported cases," said Eileen Recktenwald, executive director of Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs.

A major overhaul of the system came about after the state auditor found in 2015 over 3,000 sexual assault kits sitting on the shelves of law enforcement, untested and underfunded.

The following year's legislative session passed the SAFE Act, a comprehensive piece of legislation that aims to prevent a backlog while requiring particular timelines and further accountability of parties involved in the administering and testing of sexual assault kits.

"We want to make sure our streets, our communities are safe as possible. And one of the ways we can do that is by speeding up the availability of this forensic evidence," said State Senator Whitney Westerfield.

This year, further protections and speed is being encouraged in the system, as Senate Bill 97 was signed into law to have KSP create an online tracking system to follow the status of a sexual assault forensic evidence kit.

"In the past, victims had to rely on the investigator, which sometimes could be a detective or an officer to get the results of their testing, and this is a way they can do it firsthand and through the internet, and use a specific serial number that's pertinent to their case and find out the results," said Master Trooper Jeremy Hodges, of KSP Post 3.

This now also being supported by KSP's announcement of starting a pilot program to start using rapid DNA testing when investigating sexual assaults.

They say Kentucky is the first state to start adopting this.

"The pilot means that basically what they're doing is what I would consider a randomized controlled trial. So when they get a new kit in now, not an untested kit, but a new kit, they're taking that kit and they're testing it twice. They're testing the DNA with the rapid DNA, and they're testing it with the regular method that everybody else in the country use," explained Reckentwald.

The process that goes into completing a sexual assault forensic evidence kit oftentimes forces a survivor to go through their trauma multiple times.

"That person's having to relive the story over and over again, where many people just want to forget about it, or to start figuring out how to cope with what's happened to them -- make their life as normal as it can be after an assault," said Whitley.

But for those who do decide to pursue prosecution, these measures are hoped to give survivors more hope for justice.

"In the past, they had no idea even if their kit was ever submitted; they didn't know what happened to it after they had the evidence taken. This way, they will be able to go into the portal and find out if it go to the lab, when it go to the lab, where the processing is, and what stage it is when its completed," said Recktenwald.

"I'm thinking about individual cases in my time as a prosecutor, and there are times when I felt like, maybe I was reading it wrong, but I felt like that victim just needed a little bit of something to give them confidence, just a little bit of confidence," said Westerfield. "They need to know something good was happening. What if knowing that they could see right where their evidence is provides that extra little something. Knowing that it's being handled, knowing that it's moving quickly, and with rapid DNA, knowing that it's moving exceptionally quickly? Nothing but upside."

Kentucky governor Matt Bevin has said if re-elected, and the rapid DNA program proves to work, he'll continue to fund the technology.

Kentucky State Police is tasked with implementing a tracking system of forensic kits by July of 2020.

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