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.
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.
VALPARAISO — A Liberty Township excavating company owner, already in a legal dispute over a sign accusing a local union of stalking his family, now faces a related complaint from the state.
The Indiana attorney general's office has filed a motion for a temporary restraining order to have Davis & Sons Excavating remove boulders it has placed outside the business around a mailbox along U.S. 6.
"The boulders are a nuisance ... and pose a serious danger to Indiana motorists, including the risk of property damage, serious injury, or death," according to the motion filed on behalf of the Indiana Department of Transportation.
INDOT says it had the company remove a fence from along the highway in early November and recently was forced to remove several large boulders and concrete barriers from the same location when the owner refused. The items have been placed where union members have picketed the business.
The underlying labor dispute with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 revolves around a sign the company has posted outside its property at 155 W. U.S. 6. The sign reads, "Local 150 stalked my daughter at her school Friday morning on February 23, 2018."
Dick Davis, who operates the excavation business with his son, said the boulders now in question have been in place for a year.
Upon advice from his attorney, he said the boulders were to be removed Thursday.
A hearing is scheduled on the state's motion for 1 p.m. Friday before Porter Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Clymer.
Stalking refers to a criminal act, and use of that word amounts to defamation if someone has not been convicted of the offense, attorney Ken Elwood has said on behalf of the union.
Davis has said he is not taking the sign down.
Elwood said Thursday said he has never seen anyone ignore a court order.
"He's clearly in contempt of court," Elwood said.
When the company was ordered by the courts in January to remove an earlier sign that read "150 business agents are stalking my wife and kids," it complied by replacing the word "stalking" with "bullying," Elwood has said. That version of the sign was not defamation, per se, and would not likely justify a temporary order, he said.
Davis said the dispute with the union has left him feeling as though he no longer lives in America.
"No one has ever treated me this way in 74 years," he said.
INDIANAPOLIS — A Merrillville private school cannot accept new voucher students in the fall after the State Board of Education on Wednesday denied its request for a waiver from school accountability consequences.
Faith Academy, an extension of Faith Temple of Christ, earned a D rating from the state school board during the 2015-16 school year. It received an F for 2016-17.
Under Indiana law, unless the state board grants a waiver, a private school is barred from accepting new students whose tuition is paid by taxpayer-funded vouchers after being rated D or F for two consecutive years. Current voucher students can continue attending.
Dennis Walton, founder and pastor of the church and its 107-student school, said it recently hired a new principal and replaced half of the six teachers serving students in kindergarten through 12th grade to improve student performance in subsequent years.
However, the board unanimously agreed in rejecting the waiver request that state law requires a school requesting such a waiver to show that a majority of students "demonstrated academic improvement" in the preceding year, which the board concluded Faith Academy failed to do.
Board members also were clearly disturbed after Walton said Faith Academy was looking into eliminating its high school program because that would remove 17 low-performing students from its accountability calculation and help boost its A-F rating in the future.
It's widely assumed, but rarely confirmed, that some Indiana charter and private schools routinely take steps to prompt low-performing students to return to their local public school corporations.
Steve Yager, a board member from Fort Wayne, asked the board's attorney to investigate whether there are potential legal consequences for a school that directs low-performing students elsewhere to improve its accountability grade.
Faith Academy's Walton explained that the academy added high school last year in response to requests from parents. But he said many of the high school students who enrolled were leaving Gary public schools and either achieving significantly below grade level, or require special education services the academy is unable to provide.
"We realized that was a mistake, because many of them were already far gone," Walton said.
Vince Bertram, a state school board member from Indianapolis, said Walton's statement misunderstands the entire purpose of education.
"You turn schools around by turning lives around, not by turning them away," Bertram said. "I think it's malpractice to say this year we're going to improve the school: we're going to start excluding kids.
"You accepted them. You have a responsibility to them. I don't care how far they're behind; a lot of kids are behind, and that's what educators do — you take them where they're at, and you build lives."
Last month, the state board granted a waiver to Ambassador Christian Academy in Gary, even though it earned D ratings from the state school board for the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years.
The board was satisfied with the improvements the school put in place, even though it did not analyze whether Ambassador's improvements encompassed a majority of its 196 students, as required by law, and ignored a recommendation from state school board staff that the waiver be denied.
NEW CHICAGO — The Lake County Sheriff's Department is taking the lead on an investigation into the deaths of a man and woman found Tuesday, Sheriff Oscar Martinez confirmed.
"We are treating this as a homicide investigation," Martinez said.
Both victims were identified Tuesday night by the Lake County coroner's office.
Manuel F. Alfaro, 52, and Heather Rayner, 39, were found dead in their home in the 300 block of Van Buren Avenue. They were both pronounced dead at 1:40 p.m., according to the Lake County coroner's office. They died from multiple gunshot wounds.
On Tuesday, a concerned neighbor went to the small white home in the 300 block of Van Buren Avenue to find the main door open and two victims on the floor, Martinez said.
The neighbor left and immediately called 911, Martinez said.
Martinez declined to disclose much Tuesday night, saying he did not want to risk the integrity of the investigation.
"What we can say is that the public and the neighborhood should not be concerned. This was an isolated incident," he said.
New Chicago police spoke with neighbors in the afternoon as Lake County crime scene investigators walked in and out of the house. Investigators gathered in the yard as a light mist fell and birds chirped.
At about 5 p.m., a woman arrived on scene, frantically asking police if one of the victims was someone she knew. After a short time, she returned to her vehicle, and investigators interviewed her, jotting down notes as they went.
A Lake County coroner’s van was parked next to the home, which is in a neighborhood along Deep River.
Crime scene tape encircled the yard, and a firetruck blocked traffic on Van Buren Avenue.
Jess Rockwell, a retired steelworker who lives nearby, watched from his daughter’s porch.
Rockwell said he saw the couple who live in the home Monday afternoon. The man was outside, and the woman walked to the mailbox, he said.
“There were quite a few people coming in and out of there,” he said. “I can’t say what or who, but they did have company every day.”
The couple seemed nice enough, he said.
Martinez declined to disclose the victims' relationship. Investigators were interviewing possible witnesses and following up on leads Tuesday night.
"We hope to have some closure soon on this investigation," he said.
Gallery: Recent arrests booked into Lake County Jail