Girl inspires Pa. watchdog to target rape kit testing backlog

Written by Barbara Miller, | Jan 26, 2017 2:58 PM
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(Harrisburg) -- Eleven-year-old Madison Wertz, of Williamsport, was inspired by watching a crime show to spend hours collecting signatures after school and over the summer on her petition to end the backlog in rape kit testing.

She, in turn, inspired the state auditor general to start a nationwide petition to secure funding for the testing.

Madison, a sixth grader at Lycoming Valley Intermediate School, said she was watching "Cold Justice" on YouTube with her dad when she learned about rape kits going untested in Flint, Michigan.

"I was so sad because of what happened. I told my dad could we do something about it," she said, which led to starting a petition.

So far she and her family secured about 750 signatures in the last 10 months, many of them gathered along a bike path near their home.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale invited Madison to help launch a petition on the issue Thursday with Rep. Brandon Neuman, D-Washington County.

Testing costs $1,000 to $1,800 per kit, and with a backlog of 2,000 kits, the amount needed would be between $2 million and $3.6 million, DePasquale said.

The petition comes on the heels of the auditor general's report last September showing Pennsylvania had a backlog of at least 3,102 rape kits awaiting testing, including 1,852 that were waiting 12 months or more.

This is changing with her," said Madison's dad, Michael Wertz.

"I'm mostly proud of my family. Almost all our family has been helping with this," Madison said.

A self-described "crime show freak," Michael Wertz said he's explained what rape and sexual assault means to his daughter in "child-sensitive" terms.

"I don't lie to my child," he said.

The number of untested rape kits nationwide is estimated in the "hundreds of thousands" by of the Joyful Heart Foundation, DePasquale said.

Pennsylvania's backlog is probably undercounted, he said, since only a fraction of law enforcement agencies took part in the first annual count required under Act 27.

But progress has been made, DePasquale said, based on data from the state's three crime labs.

The state police bureau of forensic services reported this week that it completed testing on 936 rape/sexual assault cases in 2016, and 93 percent of them were cases since September 2015.

Last month, Philadelphia Police Department reported it outsourced more than 900 of its 1,574 kits for testing in 2016, and the Allegheny County medical examiner outsourced 250 kids it received from municipalities including Pittsburgh.

Neuman called Madison "an amazing young woman to stand up for victims you have not met and do not know, but you understand the issue enough to know these victims need justice."

Neuman said it's not enough to just test the kits. "We need conclusive results from this testing," he said.

In most cases there is more than one DNA sample in the results, and that technology exists to separate the DNA to provide conclusive results.

A copy of Madison's speech will be going to every member of the legislature, and the petition will go out to governors of all 50 states.

DePasquale said the petition calls for all states to find funding to pay for rape kit testing, and to upload all usable DNA into the federal CODIS database to help identify serial offenders.

In Pennsylvania, DePasquale said, "This is going to be a very tough budget for the state, we understand." But he added, "This is not a heavy lift financially. The state not only can, but must do this."

The initial goal of the petition will be 25,000 signatures, which DePasquale said should be easily attainable. It will also be sent to Congress and federal officials to help urge action on a national level.

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