A Long Wait: Untested Sexual Assault Kits Part 1

Duluth Ranks No. 1 in the State for Untested Sexual Assault Kits

DULUTH, Minn. – In 2015 Duluth earned a notorious title, one that put a dark spot on hope for sexual assault survivors.

Out of the entire state, the city is No. 1 in the amount of untested rape kits sitting shelved in the evidence room, 578 kits to be exact and some 23 years old.

The information came out after the state passed a law in 2015 requiring police departments to report to the BCA how many untested kits they were holding onto, that were never sent in for DNA testing. Duluth alone had 17 percent of the state’s untested kits.

St. Luke’s Emergency Department Clinical Supervisor Katie Jo Saletel says most sexual assault investigations start in the hospital.

“A lot of times they’ll ask questions repeatedly, ‘Why me, why me,” said Saletel. “We can’t answer that but what we can say is you’re in a safe space.”

When a patient comes to the hospital and says they’ve been raped, staff at St. Luke’s immediately starts a special process, they’ll call PAVSA who often has a nurse advocate on call to assist with treatment. A patient has to decide if they want a sexual assault evidence kit completed.

“It’s stressful, emotional and hard to digest a lot of the steps to go through to get that forensic evidence, it can be hard mentally and psychologically,” said Saletel.

Saletel says most victims do choose to get the exam, but what comes next is another difficult choice, they must decide if they want to file a criminal report. Some victims chose not to file a report, and that means they won’t be sent to the BCA for testing.

The hospital allows them a chance to change their mind, and keeps the evidence for six months if they aren’t picked up by law enforcement.

In 2015 Duluth police said they had 578 kits in their possession, of those 454 victims chose to file a report, but the kits were never sent in for testing.

Current police Chief Mike Tusken says in part, old investigative practices are to blame. He says in the past, the kits that were viable to be picked up by a prosecutor and go to court were sent for testing while others were shelved.

“You only get so many hours you can investigate, and hours you can dedicate to a complex lengthy investigation,” said Chief Tusken.

Now he says that practice left big holes in many victims hope for justice…

“We didn’t back up passion with good solid business practices,” said Tusken. “Even if we didn’t get resolution in a case, the DNA profile could help catch a serial offender.”

Tusken says in the last year and half things have changed. When a sexual assault is reported today, Chief Tusken says the predicted outcome of a case doesn’t determine whether the kit is sent for testing.

“I don’t see law enforcement getting into this predicament today,” said Chief Tusken.

At hospitals like St. Luke’s, nurses are being more proactive in making sure law enforcement is doing their job.

Saletel says, in the past, kits would sit at hospitals for months waiting for pickup and that’s not the case anymore.

“We’re vigilant about calling agencies, saying you need to come get this kit,” said Saletel. “This kit cannot sit here it needs to go so you can get it to the BCA. Realistically within 24 hours you should be able to get someone down to get it.”

One positive thing that came from the report’s findings is Duluth received a federal million dollar grant to clear the backlog and get the old kits sent in for testing.

Wednesday night at 9 p.m., in part two of a special report, we’ll introduce you to the people who go through the cases, and determine which should be sent in first and the deadline they are under.

In Duluth PAVSA is helping survivors of sexual assault reconnect with law enforcement in Duluth to determine the status and possible new details about their case. Call the confidential Betty Skye Line to connect with a PAVSA advocate: 218-730-5449 or bettyskyeline@pavsa.org.

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