Detroit — As a sexual assault nurse examiner, Alisha Blazevic wants to make sure she’s providing the best care she can for victims.
On Monday, the first Detroit Sexual Assault Kit Summit, hosted by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, drew Blazevic, from Duluth, Minnesota, and hundreds from around 40 states and dozens of Michigan cities attended to discuss the handling of sexual assault cases.
“I wanted to receive more education,” said Blazevic, who works for Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, a community-based program in Duluth. “I wanted to make sure that our program is running to the highest standards that we can.”
The summit runs through Wednesday at the Renaissance Center with experts in all fields of law enforcement weighing in on the fight to solve cold case assaults. The summit follows one held in 2015 in Memphis, Tennessee, that gathered leaders from cities including Detroit, Houston and Cleveland.
“I’m glad they open the doors for us,” said Laura Sudkamp, a forensic lab manager for the Kentucky State Police. “It’s not just Cleveland, Memphis, Detroit and Houston. It’s an excellent source of information.”
Sudkamp said the Kentucky State Police is processing about 3,300 rape kits statewide and has received grant funding to do so. The agency provides crime laboratory services for the state’s 520 law enforcement agencies.
“Right now we’re sucking up all the information from everyone we can get from the people who have already been through to learn where the pitfalls are, what to look for,” she said. “What the best practices are. ... I think it’s important to attend these (summits). It allowed us to come up with good, strong legislation to make sure the kits come into the laboratory, that they are turned around in time. That they aren’t tossed.”
Earlier Monday, Worthy said that investigators have tested the vast majority of the thousands of rape kits found languishing in a Detroit police property storage facility, netting dozens of convictions and identifying “thousands” of suspects.
“We have about 700 kits still to be tested, so we’re continuing to work on those,” Worthy said. “We have over 60 convictions now, we have identified 770 serial rapists ... and thousands of suspects.”
More than 11,000 rape kits were found in 2009 in a Detroit police property storage facility. Worthy has pushed efforts to get the kits tested and old cases prosecuted.
Of the 770 serial rapists identified, more than 50 DNA profiles have 10-15 matches, meaning those suspects allegedly raped around a dozen women, Worthy said.
“And the testing has shown these kits have ties to 39 other states,” Worthy added. “Links to crime scenes in 39 other states.”
Those crimes have not only involved rapes.
“With these (DNA) hits that we’ve gotten to populate the database, it also helps solve murders, armed robberies, home invasions,” Worthy said. “It’s not just sexual assaults that these DNA hits can solve. It’s all crimes.”
One session Monday afternoon shed light on some of the challenges that the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office faced as it tackled an audit of sexual assault kits. Among the first challenges was documenting the contents of each kit at the Detroit Police headquarters, said Tanya Abdelnour of the Prosecutor’s Office.
“It was an unbelievable challenge to get this done,” she said. “We were there for months.”
Each piece of information was important, Abdelnour said.
“Here it is five years and that information has been vital to us in our prosecution,” she said. “Things that you don’t think about. ... Some of the kits had not only the victim’s name on it, doctor’s name, the nurse’s name, whoever performed the examination, who sealed the kit, who picked up the kit. It would have information such as the hospital. When you go back 20 years there are hospitals that have merged, hospital systems that have merged, hospitals that no longer exist so it’s challenging to go and find witnesses when you don’t know where they necessarily work. So having that information is vital five years down the road when you start to prosecute these cases.”
Another challenge was manpower, she said. Sufficient clerical staff is needed to undertake an audit.
“Not just the personnel, but also some type of mechanism to track that information,” she said. “We did it by hand on pieces of paper. When we started this I wanted computers and I wanted people sitting there and entering the data. We didn’t necessarily have a tracking system or record system. We used a database that was created and now at this point we have to go back and fill that data that we did by hand into a database.”
Other sessions during the summit include talks on advances in DNA science, how to prosecute an assault, and how to approach a survivor of a decades-old rape.
“We’re knocking on doors of women 25 (to) 30 years later,” Worthy said. “Their lives may have changed, their station in life may have changed … their names may have changed. We want to make sure we approach them in the proper way.”
Attorney General Bill Schuette said all the collaboration and sharing of information is working toward one goal: “To make sure we provide justice for women.”
“There were sexual assault kits that were sitting on a shelf in a warehouse, collecting dust, which meant that women were violated twice,” Schuette said. “Once by a brutal, horrific attack … and then when nothing was done about it. No investigation, no prosecution, no justice. But the measure of good news is that’s in the past.”
Worthy confessed she had a moment of doubt before taking the huge backlog public.
“The struggle that I had in the beginning, that lasted about two minutes, was that I didn’t want another scandal in the city of Detroit,” she said. “But I knew in the end we (had to) focus on why we’re really here: to bring justice to the survivors.”
Now the region sits on the front lines of a nationwide struggle to catch up on evidence kit backlogs, Worthy said.
“If we want a safe southeastern Michigan, we’ve got to combat this. If we want the city of Detroit to be the star it should be, we’ve got to combat this.” she said. “We’ve got to say that we’re going to admit our responsibility, we’re going to admit our mistakes, and then we’re going to be the first in line to try and fix them.”
This week’s event was designed as outreach to other cities struggling with similar issues, according to Worthy.
“We’re really hoping that other cities that haven’t done anything about their untested kits, or their backlogs, will hear about this and be motivated to do something,” she said. “And they’ll know who to turn to have those issues resolved.”
It’s also a message to rape survivors, she said.
“Since (rape) is already a lowly reported crime, if (victims) know that we’re working this hard for the past survivors then (they’ll know) we will certainly work for the new victims in the future,” Worthy said. “So people will come forward and more reporting will happen.”
Worthy said her office hopes to have all kits tested within the next three to five years. Her office started with two investigators and has steadily increased its staff, with a goal of reaching 20 investigators soon.
“To me it doesn’t matter if you were victimized 35 years ago, you’re victimized today, or you’re victimized tomorrow,” Worthy said. “And by ‘it doesn’t matter,’ I mean your case is just as important.”