As state clears sex assault kit backlog, teams work to empower victims

MADISON, Wis. (WBAY) - The last batch of unsubmitted sexual assault kits has been sent to labs for testing, Wisconsin Attorney General Brad Schimel announced Tuesday.

Schimel says testing will be complete by the end of 2018. Clearing the backlog of cases was the mission of Wisconsin's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

Some of these untested kits date back to the 1980s. The unsubmitted kits were still in possession of local law enforcement and hospitals.

"If we can link up serial offenders and get them held accountable for those offenses, they can't commit more offenses," Schimel told Action 2 News in a recent interview.

Schimel says testing is complete on 1,884 kits, and 2271 kits are being tested currently.

The Wisconsin Department of Justice received a $2 million grant in 2015 to test unsubmitted kits. The state received the largest grant in the country because of the WiSAKI program.

Click here to learn more about the Wisconsin Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

The DOJ has filed charges against two people as result of testing of previously unsubmitted kits: Aaron J. Heiden in Winnebago County; and Leroy R. Whittenberger in Waupaca County.

To date, the testing has found 39 cold hits. Those are cases where the DNA comes from someone who was not originally identified as a suspect.

"We expect that more cases are going to be developed. We, right now we have, I think it was about 180 cases that we have found a DNA profile, a foreign DNA, not the victim's profile," Schimel told us. "Now the issue is, though, many of those cases, there isn't going to be anything to go forward on. For instance, maybe we already knew that was the offender. We've already done something with the DNA and we're not going to find more."

OPENING OLD WOUNDS

News of an arrest or hit in a years-old sexual assault case can open old wounds for a victim. In some of these cases, victim advocates say they need to be there for them when the news is delivered.

Pam Malin, a victim advocacy specialist with Disability Rights WI, has worked with victims for 20 years.

"But if somebody's moved on and gotten the support, and married, maybe with children, having this all of a sudden show up at their doorstep is really disconcerting," Malin says. "And we want to make sure we put thought into that and give them as much power back as we can."

Malin's job is to give victims a choice--and transfer power from the offender to the victim.

"They have the option. Do you want to report? Don't you want to report? Do you want a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Exam) exam? Don't you want a SANE exam? Do you want to go forward? How do you want that to happen? Do you want to know about that process? Whatever that is, it's really important for the victim to make those choices and feel empowered again. Because power is taken away when you're a victim of sexual assault," Malin says.

The #MeToo movement, which has raised awareness about sexual harassment and assault, has helped reshape the narrative in the culture: the victim is not to blame.

"It's hard to come forward with this information. And when a victim does, and ultimately I think we should all believe until we know otherwise," Malin says. "And usually it's the truth. That's why they're coming forward."

THE PROCESS

When the DOJ learns of a DNA hit in a case, they notify local law enforcement and the SAKI team.

Carrie Burke is the advocate they call in Brown County.

"Then I, along with law enforcement, would work together to discuss what would be the best way to notify a victim. It could be writing, in person or a telephone call," Burke says.

Burke says the news must be delivered with care.

"It's very touchy. You have to read each case report and each detail to see what would be the best fit," Burke says. "Is the victim in a safe place where we can tell them? Maybe they're with that alleged abuser at the time. We don't know.

"Maybe we have record that the victim is in a domestic violence relationship with somebody maybe new. So we have to look at the circumstances as to what would be the best way. And that can be very, very tricky," Burke says.

Sometimes victims do not want their kits tested.

"I feel law enforcement has kind of gotten a bad rap with this, that they're just sitting on the shelves because... well... And that's the stereotype associated with that," Burke says. "There are many reasons, not only with someone not consenting to the kits being tested, but just the ways of the laws."

Burke's focus is to help victims know their rights.

"Everybody kind of wants to be like that armchair quarterback, the armchair victim of well that happened? Why didn't she go report that right away? Why did she go get a hamburger? Because she's in shock. She's traumatized. The body reacts three different ways. It's fight, flight or freeze," Burke says.

"I also tell my victims that as well: You didn't make that choice. Your body did. Because right away victims are going to blame themselves: 'I shouldn't have been there.'

"And victim blaming, in society, is rampant. But when they come see a unified approach, of law enforcement, SANE nurse, they're not alone in this process anymore."

RESOURCES FOR SEX ASSAULT SURVIVORS

By Your Side: Support for Victims in Wisconsin

Online: http://byyoursidewi.org/

Phone: 1-800-446-6564

Disability Rights Wisconsin

Online: http://www.disabilityrightswi.org/

Phone: 800-928-8778