While so many communities around the country are still struggling with the failure to test sexual-assault kits — with thousands still untouched, each one representing another victim deserving of justice but left waiting instead, sometimes for decades — a bit of progress is being made in Duluth. Enough to be seen as encouraging after years of frustration.
In May 2018, the city announced it had eliminated its backlog of untested kits; the final batch had been sent to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. This was three years after the city was “called out” by the state, as Mayor Emily Larson put it, for having more untested kits, at nearly 600, than any other Minnesota city.
In addition, five years ago, the Duluth Police Department, the nonprofit Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault (PAVSA), and the St. Louis County Attorney’s Office collaborated to create the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, or SAKI, a “community centered approach (to) sexual assault victim advocacy,” as Duluth Police described the initiative in an announcement Monday.
That announcement was that the initiative has received $727,651 from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to continue its important work on behalf of sexual-assault victims. The fifth-straight year of federal funding is also the latest indicator of progress where so much is needed.
This latest money will be used to hire another Duluth Police investigator to work specifically on building cases to bring to the county attorney's office, the department said. It’s a logical next step.
“Now that all our unsubmitted kits have been tested, we’ll be starting the work of building cases for the Attorney’s Office to prosecute,” Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said in a statement. “Together we’ll work to bring justice to victims.”
In other words, with this latest funding, “The SAKI caseload moves from investigation to the prosecution stage," as St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said, also in a statement.
"Recent jury convictions in SAKI cases prosecuted by our Criminal Division Head Nathanial Stumme have demonstrated that overdue justice is possible even under difficult circumstances after waiting so long,” Rubin said. “We will also continue to work to (ensure) that sentencing judges have the opportunity to hear victims explain their journey from hopelessness to empowerment.”
For PAVSA, the funding means being able to dedicate staff, which will help to create lasting reforms for survivors, according to its Executive Director Sara Niemi. “We are proud of the progress made so far but are also aware that there is much more work to be done to support survivors and hold offenders accountable," she said.
As of May, the initiative had led to criminal charges against nine people. Perhaps more importantly, as the News Tribune reported then, it also led to “new procedures to ensure that kits never again sit on the shelf for 25 years.”
“The systems have failed survivors and victims in many ways," then-PAVSA Executive Director Candy Harshner said in that News Tribune story. "The SAKI project has been here to help rectify that.”
That commitment remains — with, encouragingly, progress made and, realistically, much more work to do.