MADISON, Wis. — Thousands of children provided evidence of possible sexual assaults to Wisconsin police agencies and hospitals that was never sent to state crime labs for testing, according to newly released records.
State Department of Justice officials, who have been researching untested rape kits for nearly two years as part of a grant-funded effort, released the records last month in response to requests by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin.
Here are five key takeaways from the new information.
1. About one-third of Wisconsin’s untested rape kits involve possible child victims.
State authorities first estimated in 2014 that roughly 6,000 rape kits were sitting in local police and medical facilities. The evidence — clothing, DNA samples and other material collected after sexual assault allegations — was never sent to state labs for testing.
To date, most information released about the kits has been geographic or anecdotal in nature. State and local authorities have listed the number of kits kept at local facilities and outlined possible reasons that kits weren’t tested.
Now, we have a glimpse of who may have been victimized, based on details from the untested kits. At least one in every three kits came from children, and at least one in every seven kits came from children under the age of 10.
Exactly how many kits came from possible child victims is unclear because in hundreds of cases, state and local authorities have yet to track down information needed to calculate a person’s age. As of August, the tally of kits involving child sexual assault allegations was at least 2,441.
Young adults represent the next largest age group, as more than 2,100 kits came from people age 18 to 29.
2. Most child kits scheduled for testing.
Of the more than 2,000 kits from possible child victims, state authorities have scheduled about 62 percent for testing this year or next year at private labs. Law enforcement authorities hope the effort, funded by grants, will help identify and prosecute serial rapists.
Most child kits not scheduled for testing involve cases in which a person has already been convicted. The remainder aren’t scheduled for testing due to a variety of reasons, including a lack of victim consent and indications that no crime happened.
Of the 3,300 untested kits involving adults, nearly 70 percent are scheduled for testing this year or next year. The most common reasons cited for not testing adult kits are similar to child kits. Authorities have already obtained convictions related to incidents or victims have not consented to having their kits tested.
Attorney General Brad Schimel, who oversees the Department of Justice, has previously said he believes kits could be legally tested without victim consent — but that would violate privacy rights.
3. Law enforcement decided not to test most kits
Pressed to explain the origins of Wisconsin’s rape kits backlog in recent years, law enforcement authorities have often highlighted legal or bureaucratic reasons, saying evidence was kept in case of court appeals or if victims wished to press charges.
But state records paint a more troubling picture of how law enforcement authorities responded to thousands of reported sexual assaults stretching back decades. Many kits were never sent to labs because police declined to pursue investigations or because prosecutors declined to pursue charges.
Those two scenarios explain nearly 42 percent of Wisconsin’s rape kits backlog, including more than 1,000 kits involving possible child victims and more than 900 kits involving possible crimes against young adults.
Another 27 percent of the backlogged kits were never submitted to state labs because authorities believed a person’s sexual assault allegations were unfounded or because they believed testing kits wouldn’t impact the results of a case.
4. State redactions conceal who made decisions
It is impossible to identify which police agencies declined to pursue investigations and which prosecutors declined to pursue charges related to the kits. Department of Justice officials redacted that information from copies of government records sought by USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin under state transparency laws.
Department of Justice officials cited concerns that releasing the information might jeopardize criminal investigations. They have also previously refused to identify which police agencies were slow to produce information about untested rape kits, saying they didn’t want to “shame or embarrass anyone or call anyone out.”
5. Possible victims had limited impact on backlog
Some individuals who supplied rape kits to police or medical facilities have contributed to the backlog, but to a smaller degree than law enforcement authorities.
In about 15 percent of cases, a crime was never reported to police so the accompanying evidence wasn’t submitted to labs. In another 12 percent of cases, a crime was reported to police but then the individual either withdrew charges or was deemed by authorities to be uncooperative.
While seeking federal grants last year, state authorities researching the kits said they were troubled by how often local law enforcement agencies had labeled sexual assault victims as uncooperative. They said officers who hadn’t received special training “may misinterpret symptoms of trauma as indicators of untruthfulness” and wrongly deem someone uncooperative.
Many of the untested kits attributed to an individual’s actions are now scheduled for testing in private labs, including more than 500 where a person either withdrew charges or was labeled uncooperative.