A total of five sexual assault survivors contacted the state's hotline after the launch Attorney General Brad Schimel's "By Your Side" campaign to encourage survivors to find out about the status of their sexual assault kits.
"Maybe for some folks that's a really disappointing number," said Keeley Crowley, the State Department of Justice's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative site coordinator.
The assaults of at least three of those who used the hotline occurred 30 years ago, she told attendees of a meeting of the Milwaukee Commission on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault last month. Those women welcomed the the chance to talk about what happened to them, she said.
"I feel confident they (the five) were provided the services the were looking for," she said.
She also said that the state now is planning to translate materials from the campaign into languages other than English.
A five-week online advertising effort to promote the By Your Side website ended in March. Attorney General Brad Schimel's office has come under fire for its low-budget effort to provide sexual assault survivors information about the testing status of their sexual assault kits and to determine whether women whose kits were not tested want them tested.
Schimel said during his agency's budget hearing that the By Your Side Campaign spent about $60,000.
"We do not have a fixed budget amount for the outreach program," DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos said in a March 27 email. "Instead it is a flexible budget item which may be supplemented as needed."
(The state is spending, in contrast, $1.7 million to spread the word about the dangers of opioid abuse.)
There are about 6,000 untested sexual assault kits in the state and about 600 have been sent to a private lab for testing, DOJ officials said during the commission meeting.
Of the 6,000, almost 4,000 are already targeted for testing because the survivors gave their consent at some point, they said. The kits in another 1,000 or so other cases were not tested because the criminal cases were resolved and the testing was deemed unnecessary. The state is trying to determine how much value there is in testing those kits. The state already has on file DNA of convicted sex offenders.
About 500 tests were not tested for a variety of other reasons. Some cases might involve two consenting juveniles, where one could be technically considered guilty of sexual assault. There are a relative handful of cases that involve kits routinely taken at autopsy, whether or not there is any sign of sexual assault.
That leaves about 500 survivors the state especially would like to reach. Those survivors never gave their consent to have their kits tested, and the state will not test them without that consent. The state also is not trying to proactively contact the survivors to ask. Such a contact, coming out of the blue, could re-traumatize survivors or disrupt their lives, DOJ officials said.
Instead, the agency launched the web-based By Your Side campaign. It was kicked off in late January with three press conferences. More recently, DOJ printed posters promoting the outreach effort.
An internet campaign is more likely to be missed by survivors who are low-income than by those who are wealthy. The Pew Research Center reported in September that internet non-adoption "correlated to a number of demographic variables, including age, educational attainment, household income and community type."
About 13,000 people visited the website as of March 31, DOJ officials said. There is no way to tell, though, how many of those were survivors.
The 500 "priority" survivors may not come forward now for the same reason they were reluctant to have their kits tested immediately after the assault, Crowley said.
“Those survivors may never come forward," she said.
Koremenos said in the March 27 email that the state was "in the process" of collecting information about how many women came forward to have their kits tested after the campaign started. He has not responded to an April 17 follow-up inquiry.
Asked specifically how victims who left the state after they were assaulted in Wisconsin are supposed to find out about the state's testing program, Koremenos did not respond to the question asked, but wrote:
"Victim advocates, survivors and the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault all participated in the creation of the 'By Your Side' outreach concept," he wrote. "Their recommendation was for a general outreach program that allows survivors to reach out regarding their sexual assault kits only if and when they decide they are ready to do so. They explicitly rejected direct contact / outreach to survivors, based upon the very real potential such direct 'cold' contact has for re-inflicting trauma."
Wisconsin has received about $4 million in grants for outreach and to test the kits. The Wisconsin Justice Initiative on Feb. 17 filed an open records request seeking documents related to the state's grant application and implementation. DOJ has yet to provide a single record.
The state's cautious approach to testing may have consequences beyond current survivors.
As of August, according to endthebacklog.org, "testing these backlogged rape kits has resulted in the identification of over 1,200 potential serial rapists. These serial offenders, linked to kits in just three cities, have committed crimes across at least 40 states and Washington, D.C. They have not just committed rape—many have been linked to other violent crimes, as well."
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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