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The system the Department of Justice is creating to track and monitor the status of rape kits that have sat untested around the state will also be used to handle kits collected going forward.

Several kits from eastern Montana arrived in Helena this week to be entered into a tracking system. There are an estimated 1,400 untested rape kits that have been stored in evidence rooms of local law enforcement agencies around the state.

In 2015 Attorney General Tim Fox created a Sexual Assault Evidence Task Force to look into the number of unsubmitted evidence kits and the reasoning behind them and to build a plan to address the issue.

Since then the state has received a $2 million grant to pay for testing and another $284,500 grant to develop a way to inventory, track and report on kits as they are tested.

So far the state found that many kits were not submitted because the incident did not not meet the requirements to be considered a rape or law enforcement found the claim unfounded, said Joan Eliel, the department’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative coordinator.

As the state gets more kits entered into its system, it will get a better idea of the reasons testing didn't happen and use the information to help prevent a backlog in the future.

The tracking system will also be used going forward, Eliel said, with all kits collected around the state coming to the secure Helena lab.

“Unless you cut the head off the snake, you’re going to have the same problem in a few years,” Eliel said.

The change will bring uniformity to the collection and testing of kits, Eliel said. There is not a current statewide protocol for how kits should be handled. The state has also worked with the manufacturer it buys tests from to attach a tracking number to all kits that come into the state.

The department estimates a sexual assault occurs about once a day in Montana, for a total of 365 a year. Of those, the assumption is 100 people will choose not to have a rape kit submitted for testing.

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As for the backlog, the state expects to start testing the unsubmitted kits around the start of June. Before that, the contract with the lab must be finalized and the lab must show it can meet stringent standards. By that point the tracking system should be ready. The state has also asked the 10 largest jurisdictions in the state to send 30 kits each to the FBI for testing. The FBI will test up to 10 kits a year at no charge.

In the next few weeks the department will hire a victim advocate position. That person will start outreach efforts to inform people who have untested evidence about what will happen with their kit. There will also be a hotline where people can call for information or to ask that their kit not be tested.

The advocate will also work to connect sexual assault survivors with services in their communities and ensure victims are informed through the testing process.

The department assumes that people who had their kits sent to law enforcement expected them to be tested, Eliel said. “There’s a good reason to get them tested. There might be serial rapist."

In the next few years, the department will also use grant money to hire a cold case investigator to assist in places where local jurisdictions do not have the resources and a trainer at the law enforcement academy to develop curriculum of investigation into sexual assault crimes. The curriculum will be trauma-informed and victim centered and include a field guide for law enforcement officers.

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