Grant allows authorities, sex assault victims to collaborate
DULUTH -- Earlier this summer, the Duluth Police Department reported to the state that it had 565 untested sexual assault kits going back more than 20 years.
DULUTH - Earlier this summer, the Duluth Police Department reported to the state that it had 565 untested sexual assault kits going back more than 20 years.
It’s a number that law enforcement officers, prosecutors and victims’ advocates alike want to see reduced. Those untested kits contain physical evidence gathered from victims in examinations at local hospitals.
But it’s not budgetary constraints or workload issues that have led to the backlog, Lt. Mike Ceynowa said.
“There are a variety of reasons these kits may not have been sent in, but overwhelmingly it’s at the request of victim-survivors,” Ceynowa said. “They don’t want to move forward with the case or they cut off contact with law enforcement.”
Local law enforcement agencies have long used a “victim-centered approach” to sexual assault investigations, partnering with advocates. Agencies only send in kits and prosecute cases if the victims consent. Ceynowa, supervisor of the Violent Crimes Unit, said police are hoping to enhance their ties with advocates and implement better protocols through a recent grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.
The city was one of 20 jurisdictions throughout the country to receive money from the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative through the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
The $1 million grant, announced earlier this month, will provide for an additional sex crimes investigator at the police department, an advocate and program coordinator at the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault and clerical support and attorney time at the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office.
Officials are hoping the collaboration will significantly reduce the number of untested kits and help move investigations forward, Ceynowa said.
“The goal is to get to the point where we’re sending everything - or as close as possible to it,” he said. “With this grant, we’ll be able to set up some protocols for how to do it.”
Candice Harshner, executive director of PAVSA, said her agency already shares a good working relationship with law enforcement and prosecutors.
Duluth’s supply of untested kits is not unique.
“I think Duluth recognizes its issues,” Harshner said. “When we had conversations with law enforcement about this, they wanted to get this done, grant or not.”
Navigating the criminal justice system is tough for victims, Harshner said. One of the goals of the grant is to help partner advocates with the police department, providing victims with additional support.
“It’s not an enjoyable process for victims,” Harshner said. “Showing that support, and working closely with prosecutors and law enforcement, it’s a team. It makes a big difference.”
Duluth also has protocols to allow victims to anonymously report sexual assaults. In those cases, an examination is performed at a hospital and PAVSA learns the victim’s identity, but police do not unless the victim moves forward.
St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said the physical evidence collected from sexual assault kits is rarely enough to solve a case. Prosecutors need the collaboration of victims and witnesses, he said.
“Hopefully, what this grant will do is enable law enforcement to come up with enough additional circumstantial evidence that helps reveal the truth of what happened,” he said. “We want to give our officers and advocates enough tools to put together even better cases.”
Duluth is among the smallest jurisdictions to receive the grant, which was awarded in varying amounts to agencies throughout the country.
The $41 million SAKI program was announced by the Justice Department in March with a stated goal of creating “a coordinated community response that ensures just resolution to these cases whenever possible through a victim-centered approach, as well as to build jurisdictions’ capacity to prevent the development of conditions that lead to high numbers of unsubmitted SAKs in the future.”
The grant requires that recipients perform a comprehensive inventory of untested kits and create a multidisciplinary team consisting of law enforcement, forensic medical and laboratory personnel, prosecutors and advocates.
Officials said they will continue to focus on bringing cases to justice. But, above all else, the wishes of victims will be honored.
“We’re not going to force them to do something, to participate in a prosecution,” Rubin said. “That being said, we have a responsibility to make sure each case is investigated as effectively as possible and to provide support to the victim. That’s why the relationship with PAVSA is phenomenal.”