17 Sep 2019

Duluth MN: A Sexual Assault Response Reform Leader

In July 2018, the Minneapolis StarTribune reported about shortcomings related to the way in which sexual assault investigations are handled in Minnesota. The story led (now former) Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson to form a multidisciplinary task force to address the issues highlighted in the newspaper article.

The Minnesota Rape Investigations Task Force found complex systemic problems throughout the state. In addition to widespread lapses in law enforcement investigations, prosecutors often failed to file charges—even in cases with compelling evidence. To encourage the criminal justice system to improve its response to sexual assault, the Minnesota Rape Investigations Task Force produced a report with recommendations to provide additional training for law enforcement, reduce caseloads, and create a special board to offer insight about improving the response to sexual assault.

The City of Duluth (Minnesota) Police Department began addressing the identified issues and improving its response to sexual assault, even before the Minnesota Rape Investigations Task Force report was published. In fiscal year (FY)2015, Duluth applied for—and won—a 3-year Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) grant to become one of the first National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) sites as part of the SAKI program. Duluth’s newly implemented policies—framed within national recommendations—have been changing the sexual assault investigative process, providing support to sexual assault victims, ensuring prompt sexual assault kit (SAK) submission and testing, and improving opportunities for case prosecution. Duluth’s ongoing efforts provide a model for how other cities can approach an improved response to sexual assault.

Working Together for Sexual Assault Victims

Duluth’s experience is the latest chapter in developing a comprehensive response to sexual assault reform that, for Minnesota, began more than 40 years ago. In 1977, nurses and advocates at Hennepin County Medical Center observed that sexual assault victims were not receiving the level of emergency medical care and support they needed and deserved. In response, the medical center developed one of the first Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programs in the United States. Nurses and advocates in the SANE program soon recognized the benefits of working closely with members of law enforcement, the crime laboratory, and prosecution to address sexual assault cases; this new partnership led to the formation of a multidisciplinary team (MDT). The partnership also resulted in what we today call the Sexual Assault Response Team (SART). These early SANE-SART programs served as a model for additional programs that developed throughout the state of Minnesota, the nation, and eventually the world.

SANE-SART programs improve care for sexual assault victims and foster a collaborative approach to sexual assault cases; however, these programs have not been able to address all issues that negatively impact sexual assault response. Namely, the revelation of vast numbers of unsubmitted and untested SAKs nationwide that have either stayed in storage for years or were destroyed prior to testing.

Launching the SAKI Program

To address the issue of unsubmitted SAKs across the country, BJA launched the SAKI program in FY2015. This initiative aims to create a coordinated community response to sexual assault that promotes victim healing and ensures just resolution to sexual assault cases through a comprehensive and victim-centered approach—building jurisdictional capacity to prevent unsubmitted SAKs from accumulating in the future and supporting the investigation and prosecution of cases for which SAKs were previously unsubmitted.

As of April 2019, the SAKI program included 54 SAKI sites. These sites represent 21 statewide jurisdictions and 33 municipal jurisdictions across the country; collectively, these SAKI sites cover more than 40% of the U.S. population.

BJA also funds the National SAKI Training and Technical Assistance (SAKI TTA) program. The SAKI TTA Team—led by RTI International and in partnership with a team of subject matter experts from various organizations—offers expertise and assistance to jurisdictions as they establish victim-centered, evidence-based, and sustainable practices for a holistic response to sexual assault. Additionally, the SAKI TTA Team assists with the (1) development, implementation, and dissemination of best practices and (2) creation of policies and protocols that not only address systemic issues that lead to large numbers of unsubmitted SAKs but also prevent those issues from reoccurring in the future.

Bringing Progress and Change Through Community Commitment

In 2015, the state legislature directed the Minnesota Department of Public Safety’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) to complete inventories of untested SAKs in the possession of any publicly funded forensic laboratory, county sheriff’s office, or police department across the state. From these inventories, the BCA created a full report and submitted it to the state legislature later that year. Across the state, 3,482 unsubmitted and untested SAKs were identified—with the oldest SAKs dating back to 1993. Duluth had the highest number of unsubmitted and untested SAKs, 578, in the state.

Duluth is a long-standing member of the Southern St. Louis County Sexual Assault Multi-Disciplinary Action Response Team (SMART), which was established in 2001. SMART helped to create a second SAK-focused MDT; individuals from Duluth, the County Attorney’s Office, the Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA), and the BCA belong to this MDT.

Making Progress as a SAKI Site

In FY2015, Duluth became 1 of 20 BJA-funded SAKI sites, and the SAKI MDT officially began its quarterly meetings. Duluth received additional SAKI awards in FY2016, FY2017, and FY2018. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety received SAKI funding in FY2018 to support a statewide coordinated, community response to sexual assault—including increased capacity to support victim services as well as the investigation and prosecution of cold case sexual assaults.

Duluth is implementing a new Sexual Assault Management System database developed by the City of Portland (Oregon) SAKI site; the database includes case management, evidence tracking, and grant reporting functions to further enhance the ability to track SAKs and sexual assault case outcomes.

As of April 2018, all of Duluth’s 416 previously unsubmitted SAKs eligible for testing have been tested. The remaining untested SAKs belong to anonymous/restricted reports and require locating the victim and obtaining consent. Duluth has worked extensively to locate these victims; to date, 75 of the 162 victims have been contacted and given the option to work with Duluth and reengage the criminal justice system.

As of December 2018, the 416 tested SAKs have resulted in 203 DNA profiles being uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS); the newly uploaded DNA profiles have led to 114 CODIS hits. To date, 20 cases have been referred to the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office for criminal sexual assault charging consideration, resulting in 11 suspects charged and 3 defendants pleading guilty.

Participating in the SAKI program has enabled Duluth to be well on their way to achieving the Minnesota Rape Investigations Task Force’s goals as well as making other significant changes to benefit the community and to improve the response to sexual assault.

Upping the Game: Duluths New Practices and Policies

Through the SAKI TTA program, Duluth has received additional training about trauma-informed forensic interviewing techniques, which has led to understanding trauma’s impact on victims and investigating cold case sexual assault to improve policies and practices associated with sexual assault cases. One such policy requires all SAKs to be submitted to the crime laboratory for testing, unless the victim states otherwise. Following are highlights of additional successes:

  • April 2016: PAVSA launched the Betty Skye information hotline and email address, connecting sexual assault victims to community-based advocates to help victims learn the status of their case and access the full range of advocacy services—all while maintaining confidentiality.
  • September 2018: Duluth and the SAKI TTA Team hosted the Assembly of Cities symposium at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center. The Assembly of Cities symposium brought together jurisdictions from across the nation to discuss the sustainability of sexual assault response reform efforts and to produce a set of promising practices.
  • October 2018: Duluth was selected to present at the International Association of Forensic Nurses Conference (IAFNC).
  • April 2019: Duluth presented at the End Violence Against Women International Conference. This conference presentation—as well as the one at IAFNC—focused on Duluth’s progress and experiences in the SAKI program, including how Duluth is addressing and improving anonymous reporting policies and practices to ensure support for sexual assault victims.

Duluth created a foundation for success by working effectively in a SANE-SART program and expanding that philosophy into a more holistic multidisciplinary approach to sexual assault response. Today, Duluth continues to demonstrate commitment to supporting sexual assault victims, holding offenders accountable, and improving community safety.

The Sexual Assault Kit Initiative project was supported by Grant No. 2015-AK-BX-K021 awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime, and the SMART Office. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.For more information, visit www.sakitta.org.

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