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A sexual assault evidence collection kit is pulled from a cold storage refrigerator at the State Police Forensic Laboratory in Concord on Wednesday.

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Kevin McMahon, a criminologist at the State Police Forensic Laboratory, sorts through evidence in a sexual assault case.

The effort to overhaul New Hampshire’s system to track sexual assault evidence kits began just over a year ago with a nurse.

While attending a conference in October 2017, Jennifer Pierce-Weeks, who directed the state’s sexual assault nurse examiner program from 1998 until 2007 and now serves as a co-director, saw an advance screening of a documentary about untested sexual assault kits around the country.

According to a federal grant application submitted by the state Department of Justice, Pierce-Weeks began to wonder whether evidence collected from New Hampshire victims was going untested, and when she returned to the Granite State she reached out to the Attorney General’s office to see if the staff there knew the answer.

That conversation kicked off a lengthy search through often poorly kept paper records to track down sexual assault kits never sent to the state’s forensic laboratory. Staff in the Attorney General’s office contacted every law enforcement agency in the state and ultimately discovered that, as of May, there were at least 582 sexual assault kits that had never been tested because officers in 90 police departments never submitted them to the state forensic laboratory.

The worry was that a survey of departments would reveal that New Hampshire, like the cities and states featured in the documentary, had thousands of untested cases — an intractable backlog that would exceed the forensic lab’s capacity.

“That’s not a reason not to do it, though — that’s the reason to do it. And if we have a problem, we’re going to address it and move forward,” said Deputy Attorney General Jane Young, who praised Pierce-Weeks’ willingness to raise awareness of a potentially embarrassing problem.

“It’s a testament to relationships — that you have a SANE nurse who can make one call and be in the Attorney General’s office ... And in a short time she was in with the attorney general and had the green light,” Young said.

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Kevin McMahon, a criminologist at the State Police Forensic Laboratory in Concord, examines evidence in a sexual assault case on Wednesday.

The news about the untested sexual assault kits surprised advocates, who on Wednesday praised the Executive Council’s approval of a plan to use federal grant money to create a digitized management system that will also allow victims to track their kits online as they move through each step of the process.

“The first time we were made aware of (the untested kits), and the first time there was actually an analysis done of it, was just prior to the grant application by the Department of Justice,” said Amanda Grady Sexton, director of public affairs for the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“We’re living in a world where you can track your pizza online but you can’t track your rape kit in New Hampshire. It’s ridiculous,” she said.

When an adult in New Hampshire has evidence collected in a sexual assault kit, he or she is given a postcard with a tracking number. The law enforcement agency conducting the investigation is supposed to pick up the kit from the hospital, record it, and transport it to the state lab in Concord for testing.

For a variety of reasons, many of those kits in New Hampshire never made the last step, according to the DOJ’s grant application.

Officers in rural departments that investigate few sexual assaults may have been unfamiliar with the protocols or there may have been be a miscommunication when a new investigator took over a case.

And “New Hampshire is not unique in that there are officers who hold certain societal myths and misperceptions about adult sexual assault and may make a determination about the veracity of the report and evidentiary value of the kit without a trauma-informed, full and complete investigation being done,” according to the grant application.

The problem went unnoticed for so long because the paper-based system for labeling sexual assault kits made it nearly impossible to track their movements.

Tim Pifer, director of the state’s forensic lab, said he was aware that his staff were probably not receiving all the kits but they had no way of knowing how many or why.

“If it doesn’t come to the lab, the lab doesn’t go back and track why,” he said, adding that the new system “will clear up any kind of gaps in the system.”

Not long ago, it would take the lab six to eight weeks to test a sexual assault kit, Pifer said. Now, the backlog is three to four months.

“I think part of this is because some police departments are submitting their kits — there’s a push to make sure untested rape kits are coming in,” he said.

tfeathers@unionleader.com