Area groups vow to 'bring justice' to assault victims

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Scores of “Enough Said” supporters, including Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy (at podium), turned out for an October 6 press conference at the Detroit Association of Women’s Clubs in Detroit's cultural center announcing the kickoff of the AA 490 Challenge.

By Linda Laderman
Legal News

In 2009, an assistant Wayne County prosecutor found more than 11,000 sexual assault kits (SAKs) in storage boxes located in a remote storage facility. Because close to 9,000 of those were untested, the cases of the sexual assault victims who had submitted to the voluntary test remained in limbo.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy admits she was shocked when she learned about the condition of the SAKs. But soon her reaction gave way to a sustained effort to remedy the situation.

“Being shocked, appalled and irritated was not going to help so I had to let that go,” Worthy said. “I vowed to bring justice to each and every victim.”

Since the initial discovery, a multitude of constituents have joined forces to increase awareness of the plight of the thousands of sexual assault victims in Detroit, and nationwide.

“No one wanted to help us at first, “ Worthy said. “But as people learned and read about it, more people came forward to assist. This was happening all over the U.S.”

A final report funded by the U.S. Department of Justice – and mutually agreed upon by Worthy’s office, the Justice Department, and lead researcher, MSU psychology professor, Rebecca Campbell – found that resource restraints, disbelief by police personnel and subsequent victim shaming, were some of the underlying reasons that created the backlog of the kits.

“These were by no means the only reasons,” Campbell said.

“There needs to be a true multi-disciplinary effort to learn how to work with sexual assault victims, that includes trainings for prosecutors, law enforcement investigators, forensic scientists, rape victim advocates and forensic nurses on victim-centered, trauma informed services,” Campbell said.

This fall, Worthy’s office received $2 million, derived from a $7.5 million grant from the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative. The initiative is part of a $41 million nationwide objective from the U.S. Justice Department to carry out DNA testing, reduce the backlog of untested kits, and continue the investigations. The Michigan State Police, the Michigan Department for Health and Human Services, and the Flint Police Department also received money from the grant.

“We are using $635,000 to create a case management system, to hire more investigators, an additional prosecutor, and one clerical person,” Worthy said. “We desperately need more investigators. There are about 1,000 kits left to be tested, but this is just step one. We still need to prosecute the cases, to bring justice to the victims.”

Women, predominantly from Detroit’s African American community, along with local businesses and organizations, have rallied to raise additional funds to support Worthy’s work on behalf of sexual assault victims. Some of those instrumental in bringing the issue to the public’s attention are, themselves, sexual assault victims.

Darci McConnell, president and CEO of McConnell Communications and a survivor of sexual assault, volunteered to help raise awareness about the untested rape kits after reading a newspaper column that described a culture of hostility, neglect and bias by police investigators towards victims of sexual assault.

“Eighty one percent of reported victims were African American, so I thought it was time to stand up and step out of the shadows,” McConnell said. “The victims are our mothers, our daughters, our sisters. We have to protect our girls.”

McConnell has been working with “Enough Said,” (Enough Sexual Assault in Detroit,) an independent collaboration between the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, the Detroit Crime Commission, and Michigan Women’s Foundation to bring justice to forgotten victims of sexual assault.

The organization intends to raise more than $650,000, the amount needed to test the remaining SAKs. Because each rape kit costs $490 to process, the fund-raising challenge is called African American 490 (AA490.)

A news release issued by AA 490 said more than $30,000 was raised during a six-day fund-raiser that leveraged the rivalry between MSU and U-M. Team Michigan raised nearly $15,000, while the MSU team raised $11,181. Donors who did not choose a side raised more than $4,000.

More fund-raisers are planned, McConnell said. The Michigan Chapter of NAACP is on board, as well as supporters like Quicken Loans, DTE Energy, MGM Grand, Motor City Casino, Meridian Health, and the Joyful Heart Foundation.

“I tell people I’ve worked on a lot of campaigns but this is the most important campaign I‘ve worked on. This is really making a difference,” McConnell said. “It is truly a labor of love.”

Kim Trent, a member of the Wayne State Board of Governors, shares McConnell’s dedication to AA 490. Also a victim of sexual assault, Trent said the women whose SAKs were ignored suffered a triple victimization.

“The first time was when they were sexually assaulted, the second time happened when they consented to have their body examined in an invasive way for the SAK, and the third time occurred when they did not have the chance to get justice because their SAK was sitting on a shelf.”

Trent found black women from every walk of life were participating in the campaign.

“We are so lucky that so many businesses have reached out to us,” Trent said. “A lot of individuals and church groups have stepped forward. I am very optimistic. I see this as a floor, not a ceiling.”
 

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