Tracey Helms, LMSW
(Disclaimer, this is an unofficial account of events based on my personal experience)
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. During this time many survivors, advocates, and allies engage in activities that bring awareness to the prevalence, challenges, and stories of healing to the public.
According to CDC research, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 38 men have experienced attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.
Before the “Me Too Movement” there was Detroit…
When I was doing work with sexual assault survivors, I had an unforgettable opportunity to be a part of a history making initiative on behalf of sexual assault survivors in the city of Detroit.
In 2009 an estimated 11,000 rape kits were discovered in an abandoned Detroit Police Department warehouse. To break that down, 11,000 victims who were sexually assaulted, went to the hospital, had their bodies poked, swabbed, scraped, and in some instances pictures taken, and then had their evidence placed in a box on a shelf, collecting dust, some for almost 20 years.
When this news reached the prosecutor’s office, Kim Worthy made it her mission to uncover this horrific oversight with the end goal of processing the kits and bringing assailants to justice. A collaborative including: the prosecutor’s office, Detroit Police Department, MI State Police, MI State University Research, National Institute of Justice, Joyful Heart Foundation (with Mariska Hargatay, detective from Law & Order) and sexual assault community organizations formed to tackle this problem. I joined the collaborative around 2013/14.
At first, there was a lot of finger pointing. The prosecutor and the deputy chief of police going back and forth in heated exchange and tension in the room so thick you could cut it with a knife; it was such a new experience for me. As a young leader of sexual assault advocacy, it was exciting to say the least.
However, despite the challenges, everyone was dedicated not only to figuring out how this could happen but how we address it. Through many meetings, careful research, and cooler heads, the initiative moved forward and entered into a phase of processing the kits and prosecuting the assailants. This was no simple task. Once a kit was processed, if there was a DNA match in the MSP database, the next step was to locate the victims and see if they would be willing to testify. I was heavily involved with reaching out to the survivor’s along with the detectives working these cases. In many situations, we were asking the victims to open up wounds that had longed healed, re-visit trauma that had subsided, and/or re-live a past they had rather forget.
As many responses as you can imagine- that was what we experienced. I talked with survivors who were mad at us, who would not speak out because it was a family member, who cried and cried. Fortunately, there were those who were willing to speak up and testify. Even with the willingness of those who would testify, I witnessed prosecutors and other law enforcement decide which cases they would prosecute and which cases they could not. The whole process kept me on an emotional rollercoaster!
But, the purpose of me sharing this story is not to talk about me. This story is about the good news!
This initiative brought to light a national problem. Unprocessed rape kits in large amounts were discovered in multiple cities across our nation. Furthermore, with all the media attention and major players involved, legislation was changed, movies were made, and most importantly, survivors who were silenced, some for 20 years, finally had voice, finally received justice.
According to www.endthebacklog.com
“As of February 2021, Detroit has tested 11,137 kits, resulting in 2,616 DNA matches and the identification of 824 potential serial rapists, and the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office has obtained 222 convictions. DNA from kits tested has been linked to crimes committed in 40 states and Washington, D.C.” (2021)
Movie- I Am Evidence
To follow the story of one of the survivors of the 11,000 untested rape kits here in the city of Detroit (and see yours truly) check out, “ I am evidence” an HBO documentary about the 11, 000+ untested rape kits.