New sexual assault kits could solve storage and tracking concerns

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) — Justice for sexual assault victims often depends on good forensic evidence.

The Indiana State Police Crime Lab matched potential suspects to more than 900 sexual assault cases, including rape, through the state's DNA database since its inception in 1996.

SANE nurses Holly Renz (L) and Lori Wilson (R) assist assault victims and collect evidence that could help prosecute an attacker

But there are growing questions about how many cases are going unsolved because sexual assault kits have not been tested.

Some new proposed changes could soon close the testing gap.

Every two minutes someone is sexually assaulted, according to the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault.

In many cases, the criminal investigation begins with the examination of the victim by a sexual assault nurse examiner. A SANE nurse has specialized forensic training in treating sexual assault victims. The evidence that nurse collects is critical to police and prosecutors and can help provide information about the attacker that might otherwise go unseen.

"We're their boots on the ground," said Holly Renz, the program director at the Sexual Assault Treatment Center in Anderson. The facility is one of only two free standing sexual assault treatment centers in the state. One is in Fort Wayne; the Anderson location is affiliated with Community Hospital.

Renz and Lori Wilson, the SANE pediatric coordinator, see about 120 patients a year.

But what they don't know is how many of the specimens they collect go untested.

Teddy bears ready to comfort young victims of sexual assault as evidence is gathered.

No Sexual Assault Kit Tracking System in Indiana

Indiana does not have a tracking system that follows kits from the point of collection to the courtroom. There is a system to follow chain of custody, showing the transfer of the evidence from one agency to another. But there is nothing that allows victims to see if their evidence has been analyzed.

Law enforcement and legal staff have not been able to keep track either when it comes to the number of untested kits.

Police and prosecutors are now facing scrutiny over their decisions not to send kits to the crime lab for testing as state lawmakers and victim advocates work to create a new tracking system.

"We don't even know how many kits statewide are collected on an annual basis," said State Senator Michael Crider (R) Greenfield. He discovered last December that thousands of kits were not making it to the lab for testing.

A statewide audit then revealed more than 2,500 sexual assault kits had not been tested.

Viable DNA specimens were merely sitting in property rooms and refrigerators in 91 counties.

Indiana Shows Unusually High Number of False Reports for Sexual Assault

"The thing that concerns me probably the most is there are a number of those kits that are listed as unfounded," Crider told 13 Investigates.

According to the audit, an additional 1,600 cases were not submitted to the lab because they were deemed unfounded or a false report.

"Was it put into the category because it really was unfounded," questioned Crider.

"That's a high number of kits that are coming back as that (false reports), said Kristen Pulice, the Chief Operating Officer at the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault. According to Pulice, the number of kits labeled unfounded or as false reports here in Indiana comes to about 30% of cases and well over the national average of 2% to 8%.

"Something is wrong there," said Pulice. "The vast majority (of women) are telling the truth and they need to be heard," she said.

Advocates Want More Accountability In Sexual Assault System

State Sen. Michael Crider (R) explains to Sandra Chapman his concerns with the results of the sexual assault test audit.

Pulice and Crider both believe a statewide tracking system will provide more accountability. Prosecutors determine which kits and cases will move forward.

"Take out the middleman so to speak and (do) not leave it up to law enforcement and the prosecution to determine that," Pulice said, referring to the submission of kits to the lab.

The Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council and advocates across the State are trying to identify the best tracking system, looking at states like Michigan where tracking systems are already in place.

New Indiana Kits Include Barcodes and Remove Need for Refrigeration

13 Investigates has learned Indiana State Police are already gearing up for possible change by purchasing new sexual assault kits with coding numbers included. According to the agency, the new kits have a "manufacturer applied barcode label" on them. Advocates believe those barcodes could become tracking numbers in a new system.

Indiana is considering new sexual assault kits like these that do not require refrigeration.

The new kits also address another growing problem -- storage space.

"Refrigerator space was at a premium, and so one more kit -- what do you do with it?" said Renz, highlighting the problem agencies face in trying to preserve blood samples and other items that need constant refrigeration.

Renz showed 13 Investigates the new kits which are now modified to relieve some of the storage concerns.

"We no longer collect whole blood. So blood is not collected. Instead we're collecting buccal swabs," explained Renz. "All of the specimens that we do collect require no refrigeration," she revealed.

One Exception Under Indiana Law to Withhold Sexual Assault Kit Testing

Right now only "Jane Doe" kits are exempt from testing under Indiana law.

Jane Doe kits are specimens taken from sexual assault victims who chose not to pursue a criminal case. Victims have a year to decide whether or not to press charges. If they decide not to press charges within a year, those kits can be tossed out.

Senator Crider told 13 Investigates all other kits need to go the crime lab.

"My goal is to give victims the very best chance for justice," he said.

Senator Crider is expecting a system recommendation before the end of the year. He also plans to introduce more legislation early next year to help counties begin tracking sexual assault kits.

Between December 1, when the audit was released, and the end of August 2018, 348 sexual assault were sent to the Indiana State Crime Lab for examination.

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