Combating Sexual Violence in Michigan

Thursday, September 22, 2016

When it comes to sexual assaults involving women attending college, the numbers are staggering and the stories are horrific.

Two experts in this field shared stories of women who endured sexual assault on college campuses and the traumatic psychological aftermath they experienced during the breakout session “1 in 4: How Foundations Can Help To Stop Sexual Violence” at the recent Council of Michigan Foundation’s Annual Conference held in Ypsilanti. The session was developed by the Michigan Grantmakers for Women and Girls, a CMF affinity group.

Holly Rider-Milkovich, director, University of Michigan’s Sexual Assault and Prevention Awareness Center (SAPAC), and Margaret “Peg” Tallet, chief community engagement officer and executive project director with the Michigan Women’s Foundation, shared statistics and stories and the need for foundation engagement on several fronts.

“The trauma that impacts these young women is immense and it is important to not just be appalled by the numbers, but we have to think of these statistics as individuals and what sexual assault does to them and their loved ones,” said Rider-Milkovich.

At U of M, SAPAC works at any given time with approximately 250 rape victims, but that number only represents a fraction of the sexual assaults that occur on campus, she said.

“You have to understand that studies and statistics show that only about 3 percent of sexual assault victims report an incident,” noted Rider-Milkovich. “We know that here at the university alone we are missing about 6,000 additional victims. And that is just at U of M. These problems exist on every campus across the U.S. The numbers are just incredible and heartbreaking. For many reasons, including fear, shame and false beliefs that they are somehow to blame, many of these victims don’t tell their parents, siblings or friends. They just suffer in silence…and the repercussions over time are devastating.”

Solutions to this rampant problem are not simple, she said. “So much more needs to be done in the public policy arena. We need common sense sexual health education in Michigan. We need to talk with young people about boundaries and consensual consent and this needs to start much earlier than high school.”

There are also legal hurdles.“For instance, Michigan law says physicians need to report on people who have experienced crime, including sexual assaults. Unfortunately, some victims do not want to be involved with police and that repels them from seeking medical help," Rider-Milkovich said.

Additionally, Michigan also currently does not have a legal definition for what constitutes consent for sexual activity. “Prosecutors have a hard time with this…some won’t take on sexual assault cases because of this factor," Rider-Milkovich said. "We all need to push our government leaders to address this issue.”

Tallet shared another problem associated with sexual assault throughout society, both on the state and national level, that her foundation is helping to address. A few years ago, the media exposed a problem within the Detroit Police Department where thousands of untested rape kits compiled from sexual assault victims sat on shelves due to lack of money for testing.

“Every untested rape kit represents a sexual predator who was never identified and put away behind bars,” said Tallet. “We know there are thousands of serial rapists around the nation. Testing these kits and putting the DNA into investigative databases is how many of them will be identified, located, arrested, prosecuted and imprisoned. But that is not happening. Not only has the city and state not made available much funding for testing these rape kits, but they also have not put money into case investigations and prosecutions,” she added. “Across the nation, not just here in Michigan, this needs to be looked at in a whole new light.”

In 2009 more than 11,000 unopened, untested rape kids were found in a Detroit Police Department storage unit. More recently, municipalities across the nation have found more than 400,000 such untested rape kits.

As of June 2015, in an effort led in part by the Michigan Women’s Foundation, with funding from federal and some state governments, as well as $1.2 million from the private sector, 10,000 rape kits in Michigan have been or are in the process of being tested.
Results to date include 4,400 DNA profiles eligible for the nationwide law enforcement database of which more than 50 percent matched existing profiles, indicating the assailant had DNA on file from a previous violent crime. The matches were found in 32 states. Nearly 500 represented serial offenders.

“We are asking other foundations to step forward and help provide grants to help in this important endeavor,” said Tallet.

Government and law enforcement officials have invited the Michigan Women’s Foundation to help lead a public/private fundraising effort that will finance the testing of the remaining rape kits along with the investigation and prosecution of thousands of sexual assault cases.

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