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A Prosecutor's Fight for Justice: 11,000 Abandoned Rape Kits Tested and 824 Serial Rapists Identified

"If we cannot treat our sexual assault victims right, especially if justice has been denied to them for so many years, we certainly want to be able to treat our current survivors properly."

In 2009, over 11,000 untested sexual assault evidence kits were found in a Detroit police storage warehouse during a routine tour, some dating back to 1984. After the discovery of the abandoned rape kits, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy was determined to seek justice for the victims. She and her team started the long process of testing the kits, investigating the crimes, and prosecuting the perpetrators. Last month, after a decade of unrelenting effort, she announced that they had successfully tested the entire backlog! In the process, they identified 824 serial rapists and have won 197 convictions so far, with hundreds of investigations still underway. While Worthy is proud of the work she's done, she says it has revealed upsetting truths about how the justice system has long failed rape survivors, observing: "If we cannot treat our sexual assault victims right, especially if justice has been denied to them for so many years, we certainly want to be able to treat our current survivors properly."

The backlog of untested rape kits, which are the results of an invasive, hours-long process that collects evidence from a rape victim's body, is a major problem across the US.  There is no comprehensive national data on the backlog and, with 17,000 local and state law enforcement agencies across the country, calculating the backlog's exact size is extremely challenging. Initiatives like the Joyful Heart Foundation's End the Backlog estimate, however, that as recently as 2014, there were 400,000 untested kits nationwide. 

"This problem is a lot more pervasive than people could ever have imagined," says Worthy, who is a sexual assault survivor herself. The backlog doesn't even show the sheer magnitude of the problem, according to Worthy, since most sexual assaults are never reported in the first place. "Nationally the number is about 20% of rapes that are reported," says Worthy, "and when you get to the prosecution stage it's very, very little... that's very sobering, very sad and very pathetic."

A number of factors have contributed to the backlog, including lack of adequate funding for testing, especially in struggling cities like Detroit. "It costs from $1200 to $1500 to test per kit," she says. "We’re talking about a city that was three or four years away from the largest municipal bankruptcy that has been [declared] in the United States, so we had no funds." To raise the money necessary to clear the backlog, the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, the Detroit Crime Commission, and the Michigan Women's Foundation created a joint venture, Enough SAID (Enough Sexual Assault In Detroit.) This collaboration allowed private donors to fill the funding gaps through personal donations and fundraising parties, including, as Worthy describes, "suburban women [opening] up their homes, a hundred groups of black women who opened up their pockets."

Another major factor was a lack of testing guidelines which often left decisions about testing up to the discretion of individual police officers, and Worthy found officers not believing victims was a significant problem. "They closed cases because the women had worked as prostitutes or had mental illness issues or had substance abuse. Didn't believe them, didn't care," she says. Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University who produced a report on the causes of the Detroit backlog, agrees: "They didn’t really think they had been victims of crime. And they just didn’t investigate the cases."

The results of the clearing the Detroit backlog were shocking. Of the 824 serial rapists identified, over 50 individuals had committed 10 to 15 assaults apiece. With the help of CODIS, the FBI's Combined DNA Index System database, they also linked attackers to crimes committed in 39 other states. Now that the testing is complete, the investigation and prosecutions are on-going. "It has been a decade now and we are far from done," reflects Worthy. Her office currently has 588 cases that are either being investigated or are yet to be tackled.

To ensure a new backlog doesn't develop, Worthy has also been working to make changes to the system, including changing how police are trained and how kits are processed. "The training aspect is a huge aspect that can turn around this issue," she asserts. "There has to be a [rape kit] protocol, and there is now in the Detroit Police Department. Police officers do not make that decision, they just all go [for testing]." Women's rights advocates and prosecutors also pushed for a bill, which was signed by Governor Rick Snyder in 2014, that established statewide standards regarding the processing of rape kits; kits must be sent to the lab within 14 days and turned around within 90 days.

Due to growing public awareness of rape kit backlog over the past few years — and demands for justice for sexual assault survivors — numerous states have been moved to action. In the first half of 2019, 20 new laws have been enacted in 16 states to reform the processing of rape kits. Seven states have fully committed to all six pillars of legislative rape kit reform, which ensure that that backlogs are being cleared, new kits are being tested and tracked, and survivors have access to information about the status of their kit and case.

The End the Backlog website provides a state-by-state summary of the currently known rape kit backlog and an overview of legislature reform efforts, as well as information on how citizens can get involved in this important issue. Such legal reforms are essential to ensuring that backlogs, once cleared, won't return in the future. As Worthy observes, "No one turns their back on a cold case homicide. So we wouldn't even have this discussion... but because it's sexual assault, for whatever reason, it's very easy for some folks to sweep this under the rug."

Books About consent, Healthy Relationships, and Surviving Sexual Assault

Let's Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect

Let's Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent, and Respect

Written by: Jayneen Sanders
Illustrated by: Sarah Jennings
Recommended Age: 4 - 7

It's important for kids to understand that bodies have boundaries, and that everyone has a right to their own personal space. Jayneen Sanders, an experienced early years educator, provides simple and familiar scenarios — from giving a hug to pushing to get to the front of a line — to illustrate how "body bubbles" surround everyone and how to figure out when and if it's okay to cross those boundaries. Throughout, she empowers kids to speak up if their body boundaries have been crossed. Notes at the end include suggestions for adults reading the book with kids to further the discussion, building an understanding of respect and consent that will serve them throughout their lives. For two more excellent books by Sanders on these important topics, we recommend No Means No for ages 3 to 6 and My Body: What I Say Goes for ages 3 to 7.

A Smart Girl's Guide: Boys

A Smart Girl's Guide: Boys

Written by: Nancy Holyoke
Illustrated by: Bonnie Timmons
Recommended Age: 9 - 13

The tween years are when many girls start thinking about romantic relationships — but without guidance, it's hard for them to know what a good relationship should look like. In this updated guide from the American Girl Library, girls will get sensitive and honest advice from both girls and boys about being friends versus dating; what it's like to go out with someone; and what to do when you're not interested in someone or when it's time for a relationship to end. Throughout, the book emphasizes confidence and reminds girl that the right person will treat you well, make you feel safe, and appreciate you for who you are.

The Sexual Trauma Workbook for Teen Girls: A Guide to Recovery from Sexual Assault and Abuse

The Sexual Trauma Workbook for Teen Girls: A Guide to Recovery from Sexual Assault and Abuse

Recommended Age: 13 and up

Girls who have survived sexual abuse or trauma may feel like they can never recover — but it is possible to find your voice, move past your trauma, and discover your inner strength and resilience. In this book from the Instant Help Solutions series, girls will read stories from other teen survivors and learn proven effective strategies to help them manage the emotions that can arise after these experiences. While this book is realistic about the challenges facing survivors, it is also encouraging and optimistic, reassuring readers that they will find a way to move forward again.

Consent: The New Rules of Sex Education

Every Teen's Guide to Healthy Sexual Relationships

Consent: The New Rules of Sex Education

Every Teen's Guide to Healthy Sexual Relationships

Written by: Jennifer Lang MD
Recommended Age: 14 and up

Sex education often focuses on the mechanics of sex — but good sex education provides the perfect place to discuss respectful relationships and the importance of consent. Dr. Jennifer Lang, a board-certified OB-GYN, has written a groundbreaking, evidence-based guide to healthy sexual relationships, designed to talk to today's teens — no matter what their sexual identity or orientation. With a frank but compassionate tone, she helps teens identify what a healthy relationship looks like, so that they can make empowered decisions about their bodies and boundaries.

Girl Made of Stars

Girl Made of Stars

Written by: Ashley Herring Blake
Recommended Age: 14 and up

Mara has always had an especially close relationship with her twin brother Owen, the only person who helped her stop withdrawing after a traumatic experience. Then Hannah, her best friend — and Owen's girlfriend — accuses Owen of rape, and Mara's world is turned upside down. Mara refuses to dismiss Hannah's accusation the way so many others, including her fiercely feminist mother, do, but believing Hannah means accepting that the brother she loves has done something terrible. Powerful and timely questions about consent, victim blaming, and sexual assault take the fore in this novel; resources for survivors are included at the back.

SHOUT

SHOUT

Written by: Laurie Halse Anderson
Recommended Age: 14 and up

In this searing and raw poetic memoir, bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson uses her life story to take an unflinching look at how little our culture has changed since she wrote her groundbreaking novel about sexual assault, Speak, twenty years ago. Anderson describes her own sexual assault when she was 13, her father's struggles with PTSD, and more. Anderson's emotionally gripping poems also remind readers that the greatest power in the world comes when you reclaim your own voice; "the rules they fed you/ were the wrong rules," she declares, rallying them to step up, speak out, and make the world different for a new generation of survivors.

The Way I Used To Be

The Way I Used To Be

Written by: Amber Smith
Recommended Age: 14 and up

Eden has always been the good girl, but when her brother's best friend rapes her, her world is turned upside down. She knows she should tell someone what happened, but she doesn't know how, so she buries it instead... along with the person she used to be. The new Eden doesn't know how to manage the trauma she's suffered, and the aftereffects damage both her own mental health and her friendship. But as she continues her journey through high school, can Eden find a way to make peace with the new her — and see the possibility of a happy future? Told in four parts — freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior year — this heartbreaking story of surviving sexual assault and embracing your own strength will be a thought provoking read for older teens.

I Have The Right To

A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope

I Have The Right To

A High School Survivor's Story of Sexual Assault, Justice, and Hope

Recommended Age: 15 and up

As a freshman at a prestigious New Hampshire boarding school, Chessy Prout was sexually assaulted as part of a ritualized game of conquest — and when she reported the assault and took her attacker to court, her school community turned on her. She was guaranteed anonymity if she chose, but instead she revealed her identity, challenging those who blame faceless victims to confront their prejudice, and demanding that institutions stop turning a blind eye to rape culture under their roof. This empowering story of survival turned into advocacy is a painful but critical read.

S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College

S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College

Written by: Heather Corinna
Recommended Age: 15 and up

Any question your Mighty Girl may have considered asking about sex and sexuality probably gets an answer in this book! It includes a comprehensive section on sexual behaviors (including relative disease and pregnancy risks), an in-depth birth control breakdown, and a sexual readiness checklist. It also covers how to find a positive sexual relationship, including an excellent discussion about how to ensure you have consent from your partner and how to decide if you're ready to consent yourself. An additional section about sexual abuse and assault provides resources and guidelines for older teens facing these issues. Teens will be relieved to have a reliable source of information that also reminds them to respect their own bodies and desires.

Girls & Sex

Navigating the Complicated New Landscape

Girls & Sex

Navigating the Complicated New Landscape

Written by: Peggy Orenstein
Recommended Age: Adults

Even as more parents become heavily involved in their teenagers' lives, few of them really know what their daughters are up to sexually – and how they feel about it. In Girls & Sex, Peggy Orenstein, author of Cinderella Ate My Daughter, draws on interviews with 70 girls and conversations with psychologists, academics, and other experts, to discuss the sexual lives of girls. From sexual myths propagated by porn, to the "perfect slut" and why many girls disdain virginity, to hookup culture and its relationship to sexual assault, Orenstein takes a hard look at how the subtext of American life and culture influence girls' attitudes and behavior.

A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America

A False Report: A True Story of Rape in America

Recommended Age: Adults

When 18-year-old Marie reported being raped in her apartment in Seattle, Washington in 2008, both police and those close to her doubted her story — and soon she "admitted" she'd made up the story and was accused of false reporting. But two years later, Colorado detectives Stacy Galbraith and Edna Hendershot realized that a serial rapist was on the loose: one whose careful steps to intimidate victims and erase physical evidence implied he might be a soldier... or a cop. Their meticulous investigation would connect the rapist to attacks in multiple states and highlight the skepticism directed toward rape victims. This harrowing story, rich in forensic detail, is also a rallying cry to change the way society views rape and accusations.

Sexploitation

Helping Kids Develop Healthy Sexuality in a Porn-Driven World

Sexploitation

Helping Kids Develop Healthy Sexuality in a Porn-Driven World

Written by: Cindy Pierce

Kids are increasingly immersed in highly sexualized content — and that gives them a broad and often distorted depiction of what is acceptable in sexuality and relationships. Cindy Pierce, a sex educator and comic storyteller, show parents how they can talk about sexuality, pornography, and relationships with kids, establishing themselves as reliable, accessible sources of information when kids (accidentally or on purpose) see material that they find upsetting or confusing. The overall tone is one of optimism and confidence: parents can discuss these issues with their children, and those discussions can — and do — make a difference.

For Goodness Sex

Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health

For Goodness Sex

Changing the Way We Talk to Teens About Sexuality, Values, and Health

Written by: Al Vernacchio

With sex education today often leaving young adults ill-equipped to make safe decisions, they often turn to peers, the Internet, and the media, where they receive problematic messages about sex: boys are studs, girls are sluts; real sex should be like porn; hookups are better than relationships. In this book, sexuality educator Al Vernacchio offers a progressive and realistic approach that challenges traditional teaching models and instead embraces 21st century realities by promoting healthy sexuality, values, and body image in young people. Filled with real-life examples from the classroom, exercises and quizzes, and a wealth of sample discussions and crucial information, For Goodness Sex offers the tools and insights adults need to talk young people and help them develop healthy values and safe habits.

The Hunting Ground

The Hunting Ground

Recommended Age: 15 and up

In this powerful documentary, director Kirby Dick tackles the shocking epidemic of sexual assault on campus — and the college rape culture that not only encourages it, but covers it up and discourages survivors from reporting. The film follows several survivors, including Andrea Pino and Annie Clark, as they both seek justice and attempt to finish their education, despite the harassment they face as a result. It also explores Pino and Clark's ingenious choice to employ Title IX as a way to fight back against the forces that try to silence women. Searing, critical, and deeply affecting, this documentary will leave you determined to make a change for the next generation.

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