HIGHLAND — Lake County Prosecutor Bernard Carter, the Fair Haven rape crisis center, the county's Sexual Assault Response Team and others on Wednesday announced a series of reforms aimed at ending the local backlog of untested rape kits.

The policy changes were sparked by the results released in December of a state survey of law enforcement agencies and health care providers that found 2,560 completed sexual assault examination kits — that potentially could be used at a criminal trial — were never submitted for laboratory testing.

The survey found nearly 240 rape kits in law enforcement's possession were never tested in Lake County. 

Considered a large undertaking, the county's Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART, in partnership with Fair Haven committed on Wednesday to testing every non-anonymous rape kit performed on or after Jan. 1, 2008.

Any rape kit performed before that date will be destroyed unless the survivor contacts Fair Haven at 219-218-2552 before Aug. 6 and seeks testing, Carter said. 

Tracey Horth Krueger, CEO of the Indiana Coalition to End Sexual Assault, applauded the reforms.

"It is a model to be held up and a model that we should all celebrate because they are putting victims first in this county," Horth Krueger said Wednesday.

To keep count of rape kits moving forward, SART will create quarterly reports that track rape kit intakes from local law enforcement, hospitals, Fair Haven and the Indiana State Police's crime lab. 

Speaking to a roomful of victim advocates, supporters and reporters at Wicker Memorial Park, Carter said beginning this week Lake County law enforcement agencies have been directed to pick up completed rape kits — anonymous and non-anonymous — from hospitals within 72 hours of notification.

Every non-anonymous kit will be taken to Indiana State Police's crime lab within 30 days of pickup.

Anonymous kits will be stored by law enforcement in a secure location and will be destroyed within 365 days if the victim does not come forward, officials said.

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An emotional Michelle Resendez, regional sexual assault nurse examiner coordinator for Franciscan Alliance, directed some of her comments to a rape survivor in the room who moments prior told her story of how Lake County officials poorly handled her rape case against her ex-fiance, resulting in a lighter sentence. 

"As a clinician, the first thing I say to my patients is, 'I'm sorry that this happened to you,'" Resendez said. "I'm sorry you didn't get the care that you needed when you came. I can't undo that but with the people that we have here in place and the positions that they have, I can promise you were going to make a change."

Altogether, the state survey found 5,396 completed kits in the hands of local law enforcement statewide. The survey was voluntary, and not all Lake County police agencies participated, so the true figure is likely much higher than that, Carter said. 

Horth Krueger said a grave concern to her organization is the fact that more than 1,600 of the untested rape kits in Indiana were reported as false reports or unclaimed — which far exceeds the national average, she added. 

"So clearly, it is evident reform is necessary in our state," she said. 

Gov. Eric Holcomb signed SEA 264 earlier this month, directing the Statewide Sexual Assault Response Team Advisory Council to study the feasibility of developing a rape kit tracking and testing database, including identifying which agency should manage the database and who would pay for it. 

Lake County Deputy Prosecutor Nadia Wardrip, also a SART co-chair, said testing backlogged kits could ultimately lead the prosecutor's office winning more cases. 

Kelly Vates, a child sexual abuse survivor and executive director for Fair Haven, called Wednesday's announcement of reforms "a large win for our community."

North Township Trustee Frank Mrvan, whose office spearheads the "No More Secrets" child sex abuse awareness program, said justice won't come until we start believing survivors. 

"With SART, Fair Haven (and Carter's office) making this commitment, we're putting stake in ground in our community, saying we believe in these individuals and that their case matters and we will stand by them," Mrvan told the Times.

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.