New tool could put power back in survivors’ hands as thousands of sexual assault kits sit untested

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. -- Survivors of sexual assault often wait years for justice, if they ever see justice at all, and a new tool could help give them more power to see if their case is progressing.

Three and a half years and countless hours of frustration led one survivor to tell CBS4 Problem Solvers her story. She spoke anonymously because her case has been reopened by police and remains pending.

"Hopefully I can help change the process in some way, draw some attention to it," she said.

In 2015, she underwent an invasive examination, where a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, or SANE, asked her questions, collected evidence, and took photos. That exam resulted in a sexual assault kit, thousands of which are created following reports of sexual assault each year across Indiana.

"You’re so full of this self-doubt. You don’t want to believe it happened. You know it happened, but you don’t want to believe that it happened to you," she said.

Her case fits into a category with many other sexual assaults: she knew her perpetrator and did not consider him a stranger. It fits another category, too: her sexual assault kit was never tested. In part, because IMPD quickly closed her case, noting "victim refused to cooperate."

"I felt hopeless through the whole thing," she said. "As time went on and nothing happened, I kind of moved on with my life."

Last fall, she decided to try again, this time with the help of an advocate who sat with her as she made another statement to police.

"I definitely recommending using one if this ever happens to anyone out there," she said.

Yet, once again she finds herself waiting. Her sexual assault kit has been sitting in line at the Marion County Forensic Services Agency's lab for more than six months. It's one of 65 cases awaiting testing in Marion County and lab leaders told CBS4 Problem Solvers that cases move around depending on court dates. Since there has been no arrest in her case, it could take up to a year for testing.

Kristen Pulice, Chief Operating Officer at the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault, or ICESA, said she was not surprised to hear about the long wait since Marion County deals with so many different cases every year. Pulice pointed out that many victims never see their kits tested at all, since Indiana does not have a law that requires kits to be tested.

"There’s a false belief that just because you know your perpetrator, that number one, it’s a 'He said, she said.' Number two, that that person has not committed an assault on somebody else," Pulice said.

Last year, CBS4 Problem Solvers exposed flaws in Indiana's audit of untested sexual assault kits, finding that the audit left out thousands of kits in Marion County, where the majority of assaults are reported. Those kits continue to sit untested, because there has been no mandate for testing and the lab currently only tests about a third of kits each year, since it relies on decisions by police detectives and prosecutors about whether to test a kit or not.

Whether Indiana should test all sexual assault kits in which a victim has agreed to report the crime remains under debate, but there is at least one change on the way that could make a difference to survivors.

The governor signed a bill this spring which puts into place Indiana's first sexual assault kit tracking system. At the Criminal Justice Institute, Executive Director Devon McDonald's team has been charged with implementing the system, which will allow victims to access information about where their kit is located and when it moves between the hospital, lab, and law enforcement.

"I would imagine that it would probably be a little bit of peace of mind ... to know that their case is progressing," McDonald said.

While it's still unclear whether anything will happen if a kit doesn't progress, Pulice hopes that better access to information puts power back in the hands of survivors.

"Giving them the control back is really great. They can sign into a system that’s available to them and say, 'Okay, I need to check on this today, and I can do that,'" Pulice said.

For the survivor who spoke to CBS4 Problem Solvers, finding out how long testing takes has been eye-opening, but she isn't giving up, even if the wait has given her less confidence that her second time pursuing the case will bring any justice or closure.

"How are we supposed to move on with our lives?" she said.

The tracking system should be up and running by the end of the year, and it will only be accessible to victims who have a unique code and password. McDonald told CBS4 that the state has not decided yet if it will include kits created prior to 2019.

If you have a tip or a problem you'd like CBS4 Problem Solvers to consider, contact us at 317-677-1544 or ProblemSolvers@cbs4indy.com.

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