Police, healthcare professionals look to standardize sexual assault kit process

Published: Dec. 17, 2019 at 5:52 PM CST
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Legislation that would create a timeline and process for testing sexual assault kits is waiting for the Wisconsin State Assembly to take action.

The Wausau Police Department is offering their perspective to a state sexual assault response committee created by Attorney General Josh Kaul.

One bill would require healthcare professionals who collect an evidence kit to notify law enforcement within 24 hours if the victim would like to report right away. The kit would have to be collected by law enforcement within 72 hours and sent to the state crime lab within 14 days.

Under the bill, if the victim did not want to report the crime, the kit would still be sent to the state crime lab and stored for up to 10 years.

Wausau police say a timeline and process for handling sexual assault kits would keep not only the victim involved, but also officers or a prosecutor handling the case if it is going through the legal system.

"At any given time, we, the prosecutor, and the survivor, with a tracking system and a process would be able to see where that kit is in the process," said Detective Lieutenant Nathan Cihlar.

Cihlar, along with the Wausau Police Department, has also provided their perspective about a potential for an electronic tracking system, which could be attached to each kit. Attorney General Kaul announced in November that Wisconsin was approved for $1.8 million dollars in a federal grant to fund a tracking system for the kits.

"It's to bring consistency across the state in how those kits are addressed," said Cihlar.

When someone arrives at Ascension St. Clare's Hospital after a sexual assault, a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE nurse) is the first person they see. That person is specially educated to become an expert in treating patients who have been sexually assaulted.

“Depending on the injuries, their emergency room care will come first,” said Lynette Volkers, a SANE nurse at Ascension.

"It can be a very long process. It can take up to four to five hours to collect the evidence," said Volkers.

The SANE nurse will take different swabs of the body, anywhere from having the victim floss their teeth, or collecting any debris that is left over, using a detailed evidence kit. Photos and video can also be taken with a special camera.

"We use the evidence secure tape and hand it over to law enforcement or we will send it to the crime lab," said Volkers.

Right now, when police are sent a kit, it's up to them to send the kit to the state crime lab based on their investigation.

"The new legislation will allow all kits to be sent and processed," she said.

"It brings a uniform decision making process about that about what kits are tested or not tested," said Cihlar.

Another component is making sure the crime lab keeps evidence so a victim can report later on.

"The hope is that they will recover in better fashion that way instead of being forced, that there's pressure on the front end to have to tell that story right away. We give them the power to decide, when is the best time to give us their story," said Cihlar.

Volkers believes if the process were transparent, more people would share that story.

"These victims kind of, I feel like, get lost in the shuffle. They have the advocates, and they have law enforcement, and SANE nurses and therapists, however, they want to be able to help see and control what's going on," she said.

The legislation was passed by the state senate in October.