Still waiting? New system helps sexual assault victims track progress of kits

A sexual assault kit from the St. George Police Department | Photo by Markee Heckenliable, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A new online system in Utah will allow sexual assault victims to anonymously track the progress of their rape kits, including where it is and whether testing is complete.

They need just the kit number and their birthdate to track it on the website.

According to HB 200, the system will allow sexual assault victims to receive information on the lab submission status, DNA analysis findings provided to law enforcement and the storage location of a sexual assault kit that was gathered from a victim as long as the disclosure of the information “does not impede or compromise an active investigation.”

Elizabeth Bluhm, victim advocate coordinator for the DOVE Center, said this system should bring a little bit of relief to sexual assault victims going through the “lengthy and difficult” process of waiting to hear back on the results of their rape kits.

“They don’t have to rely on somebody saying, ‘Yeah, sure we’ll test this,’ they can actually check themselves.”

Having a sexual assault examination done by a sexual assault nurse examiner can be traumatizing for the victim and can last three to four hours, Bluhm said. As a victim advocate, she will often go to Dixie Regional Medical Center to help support victims during their examinations. She’s been to one that lasted 5 1/2 hours.

“It’s not a pleasant exam,” she said.

DOVE Center advocates respond to an average of three to four calls to the hospital a month, with that number increasing from eight to nine a month in the fall.

A sexual assault kit | Photo by Markee Heckenliable, St. George News

Utah had 2,700 untested kits in 2014, according to End the Backlog.

Lona Trombley, public information officer for St. George Police Department, said for years only certain kits were sent to a lab because of the limited funding and resources.

“… Evidence collection kits were only sent to the lab under specific circumstances,” she said. “For example unknown suspects that might be identified through DNA, pending prosecution, etc.”

Since state laws have been revised, 100 percent of kits submitted to the police department have been sent to the state’s crime lab to be tested. Starting July 1, sexual assault kits must be submitted to the Utah Bureau of Forensics within 30 days.

Although this new system requires all rape kits to be tested, Bluhm said it won’t necessarily end the backlog of new kits that come in. The Utah Legislature funded $1.2 million for the tracking system, but according to End Sexual Violence, sexual assault costs $127 billion a year.

Bluhm is originally from California and said she was surprised to learn Utah only had one state crime lab.

“The tracking system just allows the victim to track their kit,” she said. “The thing that would speed the process up is the legislation giving enough funds, so they could hire more people to process and more machines.”

Despite the lack of funding, Bluhm acknowledged the tracking system is empowering for sexual assault victims.

“It makes them feel like they have a little bit of control or at least understanding of how and when things are happening.”

Besides the tracking system, the bill also addresses the way law enforcement interviews victims of sexual assault. It calls for the Department of Public Safety to develop training in “trauma-informed responses” to help recognize the signs of trauma and the common myths surrounding sexual assault.

Trombley said the police department has been in contact with the Utah Prosecution Panel to coordinate schedules to bring the trauma-informed training to St. George.

Email: mheckenliable@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews | @markeekaenews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2018, all rights reserved.

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