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After ten years, Detroit rape kit backlog cleared, but still "a long way to go"

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

Ten years ago this month, a Wayne County assistant prosecutor found more than 11,000 untested rape kits in an abandoned evidence warehouse.

On Wednesday, prosecutor Kym Worthy celebrated the decade-long effort that followed to test those kits, investigate cases, and prosecute offenders.

All the kits have now been tested, thanks to the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, and a multitude of partners that helped fund and facilitate that process.

Worthy’s office has now investigated and closed more than 3,000 cases, winning 197 convictions so far. Another 588 cases are still either being investigated, or have yet to be tackled.

Worthy says her team developed a new investigative approach that’s “victim-centered, trauma-informed, and offender-focused.” And to make sure this never happened again, three things had to happen: a change in how Detroit police handled sexual assault cases, a statewidetracking system for rape kits, and legislation to ensure that police departments actually test rape kits—and keep victims informed of how investigations are proceeding.

The rape kit test results also revealed a disturbing find, since replicated in other cities across the country: there are a lot more serial rapists than anyone previously thought. Detroit’s rape kit tests point to an estimated 824 repeat offenders.

Worthy says she was initially “shocked” by the numbers. “There’s a high, high number of serial offenders,” she said. “So many things that may not have happened if this had been done timely.”

Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, did years of research on Detroit’s rape kit backlog and produced an in-depth reportabout how it happened.

Campbell says at the time, Detroit police didn’t have the resources to test the rape kits and follow up on cases. But there was also a bigger, more fundamental problem.

“They just didn’t believe survivors,” Campbell said. “They didn’t know what to look for in trauma. They didn’t really think they had been victims of crime. And they just didn’t investigate the cases.”

Campbell says that’s changing, but still very much a work in progress. It requires a lot of training and implementing best practices “so victims have a very different frontline experience when they report now. That’s what we’re working on.”

But the lapsed time and continued shortage of resources mean most victims of the backlog will never see their rapist brought to justice. But Laquetta Travis, one of those victims and member of the group Voices of the Backlog, says finally being seen and believed is a form of justice in itself.

“No one knows how long we had to hold on to survive, to struggle and fight every day to even get a phone call to start our process toward getting justice,” Travis said.

“We did get the opportunity to get our lives back and to move forward. And today I stand before you a free woman.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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