Campaign to push for funding to fight rape

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Detroit — Justice for thousands of rape victims whose rape kits were forgotten in a city police storage unit for seven years is in the hands of a new public-private partnership announced Tuesday.

The Wayne County Prosecutor's Office has teamed up with the Michigan Women's Foundation and the Detroit Crime Commission for a first-of-its kind collaboration to raise $10 million in public and private money to tackle a backlog of rape kit testing and pay for the investigation and prosecution of unsolved cases.

Money raised in the campaign, named Enough SAID (Sexual Assault in Detroit), will go to the Detroit Crime Commission to create a Cold Case Sexual Assault Team of specially trained detectives and attorneys to handle an estimated 3,000 cases for investigation and prosecution.

Organizers estimate it will cost $2 million annually to fund the team and that it will take approximately five years to work through all of the cases.

In 2009, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office discovered nearly 11,341 rape kits in a Detroit police property storage facility.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, a victim of sexual assault herself, said untested rape kits are not a Detroit-only problem. Nationally an estimated 400,000 untested kits exist, she said.

"It's a huge undertaking. And from the 2,000 that have already been tested, these rapist don't stop at the Detroit line, the county line or the state line. These rapists have gone on to rape in 26 other states and the District of Columbia. ... This is truly a national problem," Worthy said.

Worthy has lobbied fiercely in recent years for more financial support to test the backlog of kits, some of which date back 25 years.

In 2013, Michigan set aside $4 million to test the remaining kits. The Michigan Attorney General's Office has allocated an additional $3 million over the next three years for prosecution in a collaboration with the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.

But more money is need to fund more prosecutors and investigators. Worthy said she needs money to hire 25 additional investigators and 10 additional prosecutors. Her office also needs a case management system to track the rape kit cases.

Detroit is the only region where the private sector is being asked to supplement public money to investigate and prosecute rape kit cases, said Peg Tallet, chief community engagement officer for the Michigan Women's Foundation.

"The way the financial situation is in Wayne County and Detroit and the state, those entities cannot do this on their own. They need public support," Tallet said.

At the announcement, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, a former county prosecutor, said the strategy unveiled Tuesday by the campaign will lead to a safer Detroit by taking predators off the street.

"If we don't take the next step and follow up and prosecute these individuals, we haven't accomplished anything," Duggan said. "Now is the time to step in and raise the money to give the prosecutor and her team the resources they need."

Wayne County executive Warren Evans said he supports the prosecutor's office and her fight for justice for victims of rape. Worthy said she received zero support from his predecessor.

"No more can Wayne County have individual fiefdoms and elected officials fighting each other. The prosecutor's fight is my fight," said Evans, a former Wayne County sheriff. "The county and city won't work without this kind of public-private partnership."

So far, federal and state money have allowed 1,600 kits to be tested. From those, prosecutors identified 198 serial rapists, who went on to rape others in 27 states. They've also closed 151 investigations.

About 8,000 of the kits have been shipped by the Michigan State Police to two private vendors for initial forensic testing, MSP spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said.

Of those, 6,141 kits have been tested as of Dec. 4. That testing provided police with 542 DNA samples to search against the FBI's DNA database, which resulted in 330 "hits" or associations. The remaining kits are to be completed by May.

"Detroit cannot thrive if its women aren't safe,' said Carolyn Cassin, president and CEO of the Michigan Women's Founation. "Wayne County and the state of Michigan cannot thrive even if one rape kit goes untested, much less 11,000," Cassin said.

Andrew Arena, executive director of the DCC and a former FBI agent in the Detroit office, said following up cases after testing is the way to finding justice.

"We have to get those funds," Arena said. "It's up to us, it's up to the private sector, it's up to the community, the business community to step up and help solve this problem."

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