Businesswomen in Detroit Join Forces to Get Rape Kits Tested

© Laura McDermott for The New York Times From left, Darci McConnell, Joanna Cline, Peg Tallet, Kim Trent and Kym Worthy are part of a public-private initiative called Enough SAID (Sexual Assault in Detroit).
© Laura McDermott for The New York Times From left, Darci McConnell, Joanna Cline, Peg Tallet, Kim Trent and Kym Worthy are part of a public-private initiative called Enough SAID (Sexual Assault in Detroit).

In 2009, a Wayne County assistant prosecuting attorney noticed thousands of rape kits stacked on the shelves of a Detroit Police Department storage facility. The kits are used to collect and store DNA evidence obtained from sexual assault survivors. These particular kits had been in storage for up to 30 years, and their contents had never been processed or properly investigated.

When the kits were discovered, Kym L. Worthy, the head of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, “knew that they all had to be tested, even the ones that were beyond the statute of limitations,” she says. “I wanted to try to bring justice to each and every one of those victims that I could.”

But she was facing a major financial challenge. Typically, the cost of processing one rape kit is $1,500; testing 11,341 kits would cost about $17 million. That did not include the expense of hiring more investigators and then prosecuting the cases, a process that would most likely cost at least $10 million more. At the time, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office only had three sex crimes investigators on staff.

“We had no resources, no money and no support from the county of Wayne,” Ms. Worthy says. She swung into action.

“I asked everybody for money,” she says, “foundations, people, groups, organizations.” She was able to secure federal grant money to test 2,000 kits and to conduct a study on how sexual assault victims are treated in the criminal justice system. Several years later, the state of Michigan provided $4 million to cover the testing of 8,000 more kits. By then Ms. Worthy had been able to negotiate the cost of the testing down to $490 a kit. But there were still 1,341 untested kits and just two investigators dedicated to the new cases.

In early 2013, a Detroit businesswoman named Joanna Cline saw Ms. Worthy discussing the untested rape kits on a national news program. “I was and am furious” at the oversight, says Ms. Cline, who is the chief marketing officer of Fathead, which manufactures and sells wall decals. When she learned that Ms. Worthy’s office didn’t have enough funding to test the kits and prosecute the resulting cases, she became convinced that this was a solvable problem.

Ms. Cline sent an email to about 200 Detroit business leaders issuing a call to action and laying out her own research. Dozens of other cities had discovered untested rape kits, she found, but they weren’t in the same financial straits as Detroit and so they had more money to process the kits. The city filed for bankruptcy in 2013 and formally emerged from it last December.

Yet Ms. Cline was confident in the local business community. “We probably have the resources to do something to show the victims that they matter, show the perpetrators they’re not going to get away with it and just keep working to make Detroit a safer city,” is how she describes her thinking at the time.

Her email spurred a small corps of Detroit business owners to begin raising awareness and money for the testing of the kits. As public outrage grew, a public-private initiative called Enough SAID (Sexual Assault in Detroit) was created, building on Ms. Cline’s group’s approach to using private fund-raising as a way to address a criminal justice crisis. Enough SAID also sought and received millions of dollars in local, state and federal grant money for kit-testing and investigators.

“The business community has rallied around us, particularly businesswomen who are saying this can’t happen here if we’re going to make this the city we’re all working to make it,” says Peg Tallet, who is chief community engagement officer of the Michigan Women’s Foundation, which has been leading the Enough SAID effort since it teamed with Ms. Worthy’s office and the Detroit Crime Commission in the summer of 2014.

Since then, spas, printing companies and other small businesses have donated services for fund-raisers. The female-run marketing agency Brogan & Partners has worked partly on a pro bono basis on tasks including naming and branding the Enough SAID campaign. And a group of African-American businesswomen has set a goal for their community to raise $657,090 by the end of 2016; the money will be used to test the remainder of the rape kits.

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Source: The New York Times | CLAIRE MARTIN