On Point: Online tracking system improves processing of backlogged sexual assault kits

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On Point: Online tracking system improves processing of backlogged sexual assault kits. (WWMT/File)

An internet-based tracking system helped agencies in Kalamazoo County catch up on backlogged sexual assault kits. Officials said the “Track Kit” system helped them to process, investigate and even prosecute sexual assault cases more efficiently than before.

More than 11,000 untested sexual assault kits were found in a Detroit storage unit in 2009. The discovery brought attention to several other abandoned kits across Michigan and the nation. The Track-Kit system was the result of Michigan legislation in 2015, so survivors and their journey to justice weren’t forgotten.

The system was piloted in Calhoun County, and later implemented in other west Michigan counties — Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren.

Sherri Khillah is a supervisor for Bronson Healthcare’s Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program. She said her SANE team conducts tests at no cost to a survivor of sexual assault. She said Track-Kit made it easier for survivors to follow the processing of their kit, so they are aware of its status every step of the way.

“Our patients are given a password sheet, which is really nice. It gives autonomy and power back to the patient to hold investigators and nurses that are collecting these kits accountable to have them tested,” Khillah said.

The SANE nurse also said Track-Kit has helped her team better communicate with law enforcement, should a patient decide to pursue legal matters in their assault case. Khillah said part of the state requirements of the new system allows survivors of assault to decide where the kit goes next.

“We want to make sure that the patient is empowered to make those choices. So, one of the choices that they have is to have the samples collected and then to release them right away to law enforcement,” Khillah said.

Capt. Brad Misner is part of the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety Detective Bureau. He said investigators are notified of sexual assault kits faster than ever before with the Track-Kit system.

“It’s for everybody to use — whether it be the victim, the medical companies or law enforcement," Misner said. "So, we can actually track the kits so we’re not getting the backlog that happened years ago. Once we became compliant with legislation, and it took a while because we were backlogged, but now Kalamazoo Public Safety is on board. Every time we get a kit, it’s being tested right away.”

Misner said the Kalamazoo public safety department has tested all of its backlogged kits in the city. Detectives said kits getting backlogged doesn’t happen anymore, because Track-Kit requires a deadline for each department involved in the processing.

“It allows us to track that assault kit every step of the way —I can see and the victim can see where it’s at. Is it at the lab? Is it at testing? Has it gotten there yet? Do we have results yet? It’s just a lot more seamless,” said Kalamazoo Detective Jason Gates.

Kalamazoo County Prosecutor Jeff Getting said all backlogged kits have been tested in the county. Now his office is working with detectives to evaluate the results of the kits, and consider each for possible prosecution.

“It’s made my office better able to prosecute these cases in a timely way and to identify offenders that we may not have otherwise identified,” Getting said. “We now see these connections between serial offenders that we never saw before.”

Getting explained that members of the Michigan attorney general’s office have a special program at the county working on cold cases. The specialized work is funded by the state. He said several cold cases in the system connect one offender to multiple victims.

“When these kits are all being submitted and all being tested, those two kits now get tied together by the results. Where five years ago, if they weren’t submitted that unknown perpetrator may still remain unknown,” Getting said. “Because one victim’s known perpetrator may be another victim’s unknown perpetrator.”

The prosecutor said there is still a lot of work be done to investigate all of the tested kits.

Khillah said at least the survivors are able to hold everyone accountable in their journey towards justice.

“Just start by believing and accepting and not judging," Khillah said. "Meeting them where they’re at, letting them decide what’s best for them and their healing, and supporting those decisions."

Khillah said Bronson partners with several advocacy groups, such as the YWCA Kalamazoo, to offer the confidential testing and counseling. The services are throughout all of Bronson’s service areas, including Marshall, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo and Paw Paw.

Khillah further said that unless there is a medical emergency, patients do not need to go to an emergency room first to get tested. The patient can call SANE’s 24-hour crisis line to speak directly with a nurse to coordinate an arrival time at an exam space closest to their location. SANE’s crisis line is 1-888-383-2192.

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