- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana officials say law enforcement agencies and medical facilities are cooperating with a task force set up to examine untested rape kits after the state crime lab in Missoula was criticized for a backlog of cases.

Attorney General Tim Fox said about a dozen agencies have responded to the Sexual Assault Evidence Task Force’s request for information.

“With as many local jurisdictions as we have across the state, there may be any number of untested kits sitting somewhere in evidence rooms,” he said. “Part of the challenge for the task force is to come to a full understanding of just how many kits there are, where they are, and whether or not they need to be tested,” Fox said after the task force was formed.

Fox said it’s up to local authorities to decide if there is enough evidence to send the kit to Missoula for analysis.

“It’s a decision made between both local law enforcement and the local prosecutor,” he said.

The kits being held by authorities could be sent to the state crime lab if the victims sign a consent form, but they also have a right to privacy.

Lee Newspapers reported that state officials do not know how many rape kits have not been tested statewide.

Montana Department of Justice spokesman John Barnes said the task force is also looking at any funding opportunities like grants that could help pay for the testing.

Authorities said rape kits go untested for a variety of reasons, including victims who say they don’t want to press charges.

Police can request a victim be examined to collect physical evidence during a sexual assault investigation. Hospitals can also use a rape kit to gather evidence before police are contacted.

Deputy Yellowstone County Attorney Mary Barry, who is on the task force, said it’s a nationwide problem, and authorities must consider the rights of victims and suspects.

In cases where the victims don’t want to pursue a case, the kits are stored for up to two years and law enforcement isn’t notified unless the person wants them to be called in.

“I had one case where that happened,” Barry said. “The victim the very next day said she’s ready to go forward. She wanted 24 hours to talk to her family.”

“We can send it,” Barry said. “But rape cases are so hard to prove. Sometimes the law enforcement officers, if they have a victim that says, ‘I can’t go through with this,’ they will respect that.”

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