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An Overdue Examination of Detroit’s Forgotten Rape Kits

Over 11,000 untested rape kits were found in a Detroit police warehouse in 2009. Some of the kits – many containing the DNA of attackers needed for prosecution -- were decades old, leaving hundreds of victims without any hope for justice.

Detroit is by no means the only city that has faced such a large backlog of rape kits in recent years. Memphis recently uncovered 12,000; Cleveland, 4,000; and Miami, nearly 3,000.

But what set Detroit apart was the city’s innovative approach in dealing with the forgotten kits, turning a story of scandal into one of triumph. In her piece for Elle Magazine, Anna Clark tells the story of the rape kits and the county prosecutor who made it her mission to investigate every single case.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Clark spent several months earning the trust of a woman whose rape kit went untested for nearly two decades.

Clark: I really wanted to be worthy of that kind of trust. It's a challenge to approach somebody, meet them for the very first time and say, "Hey, you don't know me. You don't even know this magazine, and I'm going to ask you to tell me about the worst thing that ever happened to you." That's a lot to ask. If I were in her shoes, I would be skeptical. I think it helped that we didn't start out trying to do the big, huge "Everything That Happened" interview first thing. We did talk by phone a few times and she told the story, but in a sort of glossed over, shorter version. Mostly, we were able to get a feel for each other in those first phone conversations. I think that helped.

Detroit is investigating the forgotten rape kits one by one, but that doesn’t mean justice for all victims.

Clark: There are folks like Ardelia who have eventually gotten justice and that's tremendous. That is a tremendous thing. I think it’s also important to know that there are folks like Ona who, even if by some miracle her thirty-plus-year-old rape kit was able to still be tested and still be determined who did this to her, that person could not be prosecuted because of statute of limitation laws. There is this “undoneness” to the story that I believe really haunts her.

The county prosecutor took an unprecedented approach to tackling the rape kit backlog.

Clark: What the prosecutor's office did was initially patch together some different funding, especially funding from the Department of Justice. Detroit got these very large grants some years ago that made it possible for them to take over the processing of the kits from the police department and eventually contract with different forensics labs around the country to move through them. It created a whole unique team within its department: a task force about sexual assault kits. They developed a powerful victim center protocol for how to approach people when they're ready to move forward with their kits: How do you tell people about it? How do you reach out? It's a wonderful process. They collaborate with a lot of partners. Eventually they developed a program called "Enough Said" which is basically a crowdfunding program to continue raising the funds for the testing, investigation and prosecution of 11,341 backlogged kits.

The forgotten rape kits are emblematic of sexism in the criminal justice system, says Clark.

Clark: It showcases historic habits of the full criminal justice system not taking crimes against women seriously. I think there's just no question that there's a lot of sexism baked into this. Of course, some of this kits are men too and children. There are different kinds of folks who are victims. But the majority are women and I think that the reason a lot of these kits weren't tested, the way they were justified by the police department, a lot of it came down to victim blaming. Like if it was their boyfriend, or if they had been doing something illegal, the officers just chalked it up to it basically being the victim's fault. I think that this is just such poisonous thinking.

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more, read Clark's story.

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