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Meet Madison Wertz: An 11-year-old working to end PA's rape kit backlog

By Eugene DePasquale:

I’d like to introduce you to Madison Wertz.

Madison is an 11-year-old sixth-grader at Lycoming Valley Intermediate School near Williamsport. And for the last 10 months, she has been a passionate advocate for ending Pennsylvania’s backlog of untested rape kits.

On her own, Madison created a petition to raise awareness and funding in Pennsylvania that would help pay to test rape kits. And in a short time, she gathered more than 750 signatures.

This month, I helped Madison launch a new initiative: a nationwide Change.org petition calling for all states to find funding to pay to test their backlogged rape kits and to upload all usable DNA into the federal database, known as CODIS, to help identify serial offenders.

In just 10 days, we’ve gathered 12,500 signatures from across the country. Our initial goal is 25,000 signatures, and then the petition will be sent to all 50 U.S. governors.

This effort goes back to a 70-page special report I released last September after reviewing Pennsylvania’s backlog of untested rape kits. What I found was astonishing: inadequate communication, errors in an official state report, resource shortages, forensic evidence shelved for 20 years, and more.

All of those problems could be leading to delayed justice for rape victims.

My special report evaluated the data collected by the state Department of Health (DOH) from local law enforcement agencies, which showed 3,044 untested rape kits in the commonwealth, including 1,852 that were backlogged (awaiting testing for 12 months or more).

Specifically, my report examined what caused Pennsylvania’s backlog of kits, whether the backlog could be cleared within the newly mandated three years, and how to prevent future backlogs. I worked with victim advocates, police, crime lab managers and others to highlight the complex problems that exist and to make 10 recommendations for improvement.

The response to my special report was incredible. For weeks, people emailed and called my office, asking how they could help get these kits tested. Some offered to donate money; others offered to donate their time or their expertise as forensic scientists. Nearly all wanted to know exactly how the state planned to prevent a backlog from occurring again.

The nation’s response to Madison and our online petition has also been incredible. Thousands of people have left messages for her on social media and at Change.org, congratulating her on her advocacy and thanking her for standing up for such an important cause.

But, as Madison and I both know, there is more work to be done.

To help resolve Pennsylvania’s backlog, I am working with state Rep. Brandon Neuman, who sponsored the initial legislation that required the annual rape kit count. Neuman is seeking co-sponsors for legislation that would implement recommendations from my report, including creating a commission of local and state agencies to meet annually and determine exactly what resources and funding are needed to prevent kits from being backlogged.

This piece is critical because, as I’ve discovered, one of the main challenges is finding sustainable funding to provide the resources necessary to test all current kits and to process future kits in a timely manner.

Though it’s a challenging issue with complex problems, Madison and I will not give up. We will continue to shine a spotlight on untested rape kits because keeping this issue in the forefront of residents’ minds is critical to achieving success — which to us ultimately means victims achieving justice.

 

Eugene DePasquale was sworn in for a second term as Pennsylvania’s 51st auditor general on Jan. 17, 2017. During his first term, DePasquale's work helped protect children from abuse, end the backlog of untested rape kits and ensure seniors have access to the services they need. In addition, his audits identified nearly half-a-billion dollars in misspent or potentially recoverable state money, making him a recognized national leader on fiscal accountability and government transparency.