Nome organizations tackle sexual assault kit backlog

Published: Sep. 21, 2020 at 7:35 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Victims of sexual assault waiting for justice in Nome could see their cases develop much quicker after three area organizations donated close to $40,000 to expedite testing of backlogged sexual assault kits.

Problems with prosecuting rape and sexual assault in Nome was brought into public view in recent years when victims stepped forward to tell about their experiences with the Nome Police Department allegedly failing to investigate reports of sexual assault.

“About two years ago we became aware of sexual assault kits that hadn’t even been sent out for processing to the state crime lab, and there was community outrage and this expectation that if victims of sexual assault come forward and report, that the systems that exist to address this should act,” said Melanie Bahnke, president of the regional tribal non-profit Kawerak.

Though the leadership of the Nome Police Department has changed, victims encountered another problem: the backlog of untested sexual assault kits at the state’s crime lab.

The backlog has been an issue for years, and though steps have been taken to reduce it, Bahnke said kits were taking around a year to be tested.

“If you were raped and you go through that trauma and you go seek the medical help and report to law enforcement, your perpetrator shouldn’t be walking freely for over a year before the rape kit is even processed,” Bahnke said. “That’s just not good enough for anybody -- rural, urban, native, non-native. Victims of sexual assault all deserve justice and to delay justice because it takes over a year for the state crime lab to even process the kits is just not OK and I hope it’s not OK for any Alaskans out there.”

Earlier this year, Bahnke met with Nome’s city manager and its new chief of police to come up with solutions to common problems. Kawerak operates the Village Public Safety Officer program in more than a dozen villages. Out of that meeting came the idea to send Nome’s backlogged sexual assault kits to a private lab out of state that could process them much quicker than the state crime lab.

“If you just go to any private lab and get these kits processed, there’s always the potential that in court, the legitimacy of the tests could be called into question,” Bahnke said. “So it was very important for us if we were going to pursue expediting these sexual assault kits being processed that they would stand up in court.”

Bahnke says that the Nome Police Department chose Bode Technology, a lab in Virginia, in part because the State of Alaska already uses it for some of its expedited cases.

Kawerak coordinated with Norton Sound Health Corp. and the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. The three organizations donated the $38,295 needed to expedite and test.

Though the donation only addresses one part of the problem, Bahnke says that Kawerak will continue to take concrete steps to help the victims of sexual assault, including advocating for more funding to increase the capacity of the state crime lab and developing new programs to help victims.

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