Beyond the Backlog: Why fighting sexual assault is more than collecting kits

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Posted at 5:22 AM, Feb 16, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-16 23:09:48-05

Watch the I-Team's report Wednesday on TMJ4 News at 10 p.m.

MILWAUKEE - Last December lawmakers signed legislation to help prevent a backlog of untested sexual assault kits, which allow survivors to track their kits once they are collected and puts law enforcement and hospitals on the clock to get them to the Wisconsin Crime Lab.

Wisconsin Attorney General Josh Kaul, who advocated for the bills, was by Gov. Tony Evers' side when he signed the legislation in early December.


"Fortunately in November of 2019 we had announced finished testing kits that had been part of the backlog previously existed," Kaul said after the bill signing. "But what we need is to make sure a backlog never exists again, and what this will do is require hospitals and law enforcement agencies to submit those kits to the crime labs within a specific period of time to make sure that every kit that’s collected in Wisconsin is submitted for testing."

The I-Team met with those familiar with this issue to get their take on the legislation, and what it means for survivors, including Sharain Horn, the Vice President of the Sexual Assault Program at Aurora Sinai Hospital in Milwaukee.

"People sometimes ask, 'don't you have a protocol that you use from start to finish for every victim?' And we want to give our victims and patients back that choice so they have the choice to decide what services they get," Horn said.

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She invited the I-Team to tour the Healing Center at the downtown hospital after the legislation passed, to better understand what goes into a sexual assault kit, and why it's just one step in a very long healing process.

"The emotional trauma and the memories of what happened stay, those physical injuries often fade," Horn said.

Sexual Assault Program at Aurora Sinai Hospital

The new law allows survivors to have a kit taken without making a decision about pressing criminal charges, something Horn says puts control back into their hands.

"One of the components of being assaulted is that your control has been taken away," Horn said. "So, again it's so important for us to give that control back to the survivors and say, 'you know this is up to you, what you would like to do.'"

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It's something Capt. Lucretia Turner of the Milwaukee Police Sensitive Crimes Division thinks may help survivors feel empowered to come forward.

"We would encourage sexual assault victims to have a kit done. However that is the victim's choice," Turner said.

Turner has spent much of her career in the Sensitive Crimes Division. She notes processing kits are vitally important to their work, but the scope of sexual assault is much broader for her investigators.

"These cases do mean something to them and dealing with the victims oftentimes it's beyond just that initial report," Turner said. "A lot of times the victims are reaching out about the status of their case, and not having those answers for them can be frustrating for the victims and investigators."

MPD shared the number of sexual assault kits they've handled in 2020 and 2021, emphasizing the number of kits does not equal the number of cases.

In 2020, they received 198 kits, and recorded 472 rape incidents. Last year, they collected 180 kits, and reported 494 incidents.


A department spokesperson provided additional context that they will collect kits from survivors and suspects. Other kits may be collected even when no crime has occurred. Additionally, survivors may have more than one kit.

Carmen Pitre, the President of Sojourner Family Peace Center, has advocated for survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence all her life, noting many times survivors experience both. We asked her to let us into the mindset of someone who's experienced trauma, and where sexual assault kits fall into the equation.

"A test is good if they choose to go that route, but the universe and how this is going to live in that person's life is much bigger," Pitre said.

She says coming forward is an incredibly difficult action for survivors to choose to take.

"I want you to imagine talking about that publicly, right?" she said. "It's difficult and it's hard, and I think we should listen to lived experience, give opportunities for survivors to inform our practices at every level and educate ourselves about the processes, understand how difficult it is, and do what we can to make it easier for people to come forward."

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She adds many times people may not come forward, but still need the resources to get the help they need.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, or RAINN, out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 310 will be reported to police and 25 will lead to incarcerations.

In Wisconsin, the WI Sexual Assault Kit Initiative reports 4,475 of the 6,841 previously backlogged kits have been processed. So far, 1,087 samples were added to CODIS, the federal DNA database, 1,508 have been associated with further investigations and 45 were referred for charges.


Of those 45, 15 criminal cases have been filed.

"Whatever the number of cases is, it's leading to people who have dangerous violent crimes being held accountable, crimes which they may commit again if they're not held accountable," Kaul said.

Attorney General Josh Kaul on the kits

The attorney general also pointed out that even if those kits didn't lead to a DNA match or criminal charges, the sample is in the federal database if the offender commits another crime.

But there's a lot more needed for all survivors, whether they decide to have a kit done or not.

"I think the most important thing for our space is having that advocate there for them that really is their confidential advocate, take the time, take the breaks that they need, and be there to support them as they walk through that journey," Horn said.

"More advocacy available to them," Turner said. "Previously when I worked at sensitive crimes, it’s not something that we had as a department. Now that we have an advocate, even though she’s not a confidential advocate because she’s part of the police department, but seeing just the relationships she develops with victims and helps them through the process, that has been a significant difference."

"I haven't had a survivor talk to me about the legislation," Pitre said. "What I think survivors care about is how can I navigate? Can I get what I need?"

Pitre said Soujourner Family Peace Center is exploring the need to become a dual advocacy group, meaning they would service survivors of sexual assault the same as they do domestic violence survivors.

Pitre and Turner note the thing they need to accomplish their goals is funding, most likely from the state level.

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