In 2009, the Wayne County Prosecutor made a horrifying discovery: 11,341 untested “rape kits” were found in a Detroit Police Department storage facility. The shocking quantity of sexual assault cases was combined with the harsh reality of an inadequate system to process them, making it necessary to find a way to address the problem with real, workable change. But, so far, only one Michigan county has come up with a way to reduce the chance of victims falling through the cracks. One county in the nation has found a way to build bridges of support, linking resources for victims through collaboration between the YWCA Victim Advocates, local government agencies, along with hospitals, to focus on the survivor’s well-being – and that one county is Genesee.
Last year, the Genesee County Clerk’s Office, an essential part of the new collaboration, recorded a total of 1,710 reported cases of abuse and sexual assault. These numbers include 1,274 females, 438 males and of those, 971 were referred to the YWCA Safehouse. YWCA of Greater Flint has made significant advancements in the services available to survivors of violence and sexual assault. “For quite some time, Genesee County has not had a solid, comprehensive protocol or direction for these services,” states Heidi McAra, CEO since 2015. “So, for the last 18 months, YWCA has collaborated with law enforcement, with prosecution and the medical community in order to get this clinic up and running to really elevate the level of services available for sexual assault survivors.”
“There is a stigma with abuse – it’s an easy thing to
ignore when even the victims don’t want to talk about it.”
John Gleason, Genesee County Clerk
The clinic is called SAFE Center – SAFE stands for Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner – and offers free examinations 24 hours a day by a specially trained nurse, as well as an on-site advocate at the newly housed and renovated Downtown location. The SAFE Center is located in a secure building on its own floor. They have their own room for the exam, the rape kit is performed and any additional support is given, tailored to the individual situation.
This victim-centered approach makes it possible for them to only tell their story once, rather than repeating it to multiple agencies, and additionally, they don’t have to figure out the system on their own. “Before the creation of the SAFE Center, survivors of sexual assault who knew they needed to get an exam or seek services would typically go to the hospital,” McAra says. “Oftentimes, hospitals didn’t have the specially trained nurses on call at that time. So, sometimes, the exams were performed by staff not trained to properly collect evidence using the rape kit.”
The problem could be further complicated if there was no understanding of the proper custody requirements for the kit in order for it to be used as evidence. “There is a chain of custody – since the 11,000 sexual assault kits were discovered in Detroit, legislation has been put in place to ensure that it never happens again. And the kit needs to be processed in a timely fashion,” McAra informs. If a survivor needs hospital treatment, they can have their medical needs met and are then referred to the YWCA SAFE Center. There, the exam with the rape kit is performed in a private and calming space. If they need a safe place to sleep, they can stay in one of the nine bedrooms on-site, created to accommodate any living situation. “We had a woman stay with us with seven children, and we have a room large enough to accommodate them comfortably,” McAra adds.
The YWCA has also partnered with the Genesee County Clerk’s office, so that assault victims don’t have to go back and forth between buildings and agencies. Before the program was implemented, they had cases in which women who had just been assaulted were walking through buildings Downtown, trying to find the documents they needed, either to fill out a Personal Protection Order (PPO) or the paperwork necessary to enroll in the YWCA program.
Having seen these crime victims walk into his office in need of help, John Gleason, Genesee County Clerk/Register of Deeds, decided to do something about it. “At $25 a piece, the cost of the documents is the highest in Michigan,” he states. “How does a mother of four who leaves her house with no cash, afford to pay a hundred dollars just to get the documents she needs? We’ve seen this. We had to do something.”
Leslie A. Raleigh, Genesee County Chief Deputy Clerk, applied for and received a grant through the Victims of Crime Act (VOCA) that makes it possible to cover the cost of documents for the victims, as well as offer them support and referrals to other resources. She also makes sure that all of the data is collected to insure the continuation of this program. What Gleason wants is for victims to get the help they need and not have to worry about the documents. Through the collaboration with the YWCA, assault survivors can simply go to the YWCA, focus on taking care of themselves, and, “we will make sure that the documents get where they need to go,” Gleason insists.
“For quite some time, Genesee County has not had a solid,
comprehensive protocol or direction for these services.”
Another member of the victim-centered collaboration is Kathy Gay, Victim Advocate at the YWCA for the past nine years. Kathy moved from the YWCA office to her new home at the PPO office in order to offer one more point where they can reach victims and ease their burdens. “Bringing Kathy in where she can mentor them, right at the counter, has been critical,” Gleason shares.“She can direct them immediately to support and help them with what they need.” Kathy is a comforting presence in an overwhelming situation. “When you walk in, never having filed a PPO before, unsure of the process, and they show you all this paperwork and you think, ‘how am I even going to do this?’
Well, it helps if you don’t have to do it alone,” Kathy says. She will write for women who are too distraught to put a pen to paper, find translators for the deaf and those who don’t speak English, whatever the need, she is there to help. Kathy believes the collaboration between the YWCA and the courts is an essential element. “Having the courts understand what the YWCA does, and having the YWCA informed on how the courts work, is definitely a good thing.”
Cases of domestic violence, physical and sexual assault, along with stalking/harassment that often go hand-in-hand with them, are the top three types of crimes reported to VOCA in Genesee County; but it is too easy for people to turn their heads and not discuss it. “There is a stigma with abuse – it’s an easy thing to ignore when even the victims don’t want to talk about it,” Gleason states. But he urges that the community needs to acknowledge it, “because it’s going on right next door.”
Gleason’s greatest hope is that all 83 counties in Michigan will learn from what Genesee County is doing to help victims of these crimes. “We’re the only county in the whole U.S. doing this,” he adds. “The bare minimum is that this collaboration model should be implemented in every major city.”
If you need help, please contact the YWCA of Greater Flint’s Domestic Violence & Sexual Assault Services 24-HOUR CRISIS LINE: 810.238.7233, or stop by 801 S. Saginaw St., Flint 48501.
Photography by Eric Dutro