Situated 60 miles north of Detroit, Flint was a Michigan boomtown and the birthplace of GM more than 100 years ago. In the 1980’s GM famously shuttered the Fisher 1 Body Plant, ripping out the heart of Buick City, and sending 80,000 people to the unemployment line overnight. Those who could leave did, and those who stayed struggled to make ends meet, living hand-to-mouth as the city crumbled around them.
In its Heyday, the Flint Police Department had 300 sworn police officers and 20 partnered cars rolling every shift in a city of 200,000 citizens. By 2010, Flint had 88 sworn officers, five of whom were rolling alone each shift, desperately trying to police a city of 100,000 angry and distrustful citizens. Crime exploded. 15 murders a year became 50. 20 forcible rapes became 100. Once known as “Vehicle City”, Flint earned a new title: “Murdertown, USA”.
And then we poisoned the water.
In 2016, Flint recruited Sex Crimes Specialist Jennifer Janetsky to help solve another problem the City of Flint had recently discovered: 1047 untested Sexual Assault Kits. We sat down with Jennifer and discussed what drew her to the role in Flint, how she and her team began to tackle the sexual assault backlog, and what it’s like to revisit cases that have gone cold with the victims.
Hi Jennifer, first I’d like to thank you for speaking at ISHI! Can you tell us a little bit about your background prior to coming to Flint?
I started my career as a Victim Advocate and Peer Counselor for the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center in Ann Arbor, MI. In doing that work, it became incredibly clear to me that victims were suffering needlessly, not because our local law enforcement and Prosecutor’s Office weren’t working extremely hard, but because despite all their training and experience, they lacked the ability to truly exist in the victims’ shoes. This was before the research of Dr. Rebecca Campbell, and many other fine scientists, was available for viewing on YouTube. It was before Russell Strand and FETI became the touchstones they are today.
So, I was just one person, with a deeply personal understanding of trauma, jumping up on any soap box I could find to suggest that this work – the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault – could only be successful if undertaken in a way that was focused on each individual victim, and fully steeped in the best available science on trauma. I was Victim-Centered and Trauma-Informed before it even had a name.
You were hired by the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office in 2016. What drew you to this role and to Flint?
The opportunity to join the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office was really a no-brainer for me. I had spent the last five years prosecuting Criminal Sexual Conduct cases one county north of Flint, so I had already developed professional relationships with the prosecutors in the GCPO. I had, of course, followed the exceptional and brave work of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, and was fascinated with the work being done in cold case CSC. When the opportunity came up to build a SAKI program in Flint, I jumped at the chance. It was the logical culmination of every personal and professional experience I’d already had, and a chance to solve a complex problem for a community in desperate need of some good news.
When did you become aware of the massive rape kit backlogs?
I followed the SAK story from the 2009 discovery of the 10,000 plus untested kits in Detroit. I grew up in Wayne County, so there was a natural draw for me to learn more about the kits, and the stories behind them. I’ve followed Dallas and Houston, Portland, and many other jurisdictions as well. Every kit has the potential not only to solve a crime or a series of crimes, but to right the unspeakable wrong of failing to fully investigate these heinous acts in the first place. Every kit tells a story. Every story deserves to be heard.
You took a personal interest in addressing the backlogs. What were some of the motivating factors?
There is only one motivating factor that drives me, and that is, and has always been, justice. If I see a wrong, I want to right it. If the scales are unfairly tipped, I’m always the one stacking whatever I have against that unfairness until the playing field is level again. I’m hard-wired this way. Even if the battle stands an excellent chance of being long, unbearably difficult, and nearly impossible to win, I will rush into the fray for a just cause. Every time.
What steps did you take to address the backlog in Flint? Did you receive widespread support? Pushback?
The SAKI team in Flint is tremendous. We’ve had the full support of two separate police chiefs, our outstanding elected prosecutor, SANE nurses, law enforcement, victim advocates, community partners, the local media, crime victims, and every government agency in our area. We have had nothing but support, and that has enabled us to succeed and thrive.
A grant through the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative allowed a number of the Flint backlogged kits to be tested, leading to some cold case convictions.
How much grant funding was/is available and how does this help? What does the future look like in terms of support for addressing the issue?
We’ve been able to secure over two million dollars of funding through BJA and DANY to test the 1047 untested kits we inventoried at the Flint Police Department. This is, without a doubt, an issue that is receiving more attention than ever before in my career. We are committed to ending the backlog, and I have no reason to doubt that we will do exactly that.
Let’s talk about some of the cases you were involved with. What was the most surprising? Heartbreaking? Satisfying?
My presentation goes into vivid detail on this point, and I’d hate to ruin the surprises.
This process must bring up quite a lot for the victims. Tell us about what it’s been like to revisit these cases and, in many cases, secure a conviction thanks to the kit evidence?
It is deeply satisfying to do this righteous work every day. I tell people every day how much I love my job, and anyone I speak with knows that this chapter of my life’s work has been, by far, the most incredible experience of my professional career.
Yes. It is extremely difficult to approach these victims again after all these years. How can they trust us when we’ve failed them so glaringly in the past? Yet, having a team of dedicated professionals show up at your door (we do all our victim contacts in person in Flint) to tell you that we are truly sorry for the ways we’ve failed in the past, but that we are here to fight alongside them to get them the justice they deserved from the start…it’s powerful. And it works. It heals devastating wounds.
In your opinion, what led to the backlogs, both in Flint and across the U.S. at large? Have you seen similar issues abroad? If so, where? If not, why?
Canada, Great Britain, Australia…pretty much every country who has truly looked into their SAKs…have all found an abundance of untested kits. 175,000 in Great Britain, for example. The backlogs are caused by a number of things: lack of funding, lack of training, lack of interest, a lack of understanding with respect to the neurobiology of trauma so that non-intuitive victim behavior was regularly viewed as dishonesty, poor staffing, improper or inadequate policy, procedure or legislative work…it all played a role. But that’s all changing now.
Today, the backlog issue is receiving widespread attention at last. Why do you think this is? How does this attention help (or hurt) the ongoing push to clear the backlog?
Kym Worthy, Cy Vance Jr., and many others, were brave enough to expose systemic failures in their own jurisdictions and loudly sound the alarm. And fortunately, that alarm was heard at the highest levels. It’s a bell that cannot be un-rung.
There is no doubt that the attention has shone a bright light on some very dark truths that have long surrounded the investigation and prosecution of sex crimes. The #metoo has magnified that spotlight a thousand fold. We are changing the way we view every aspect of sexual assault and sexual assault survival. It’s a very exciting time.
You’ve received some outstanding reviews for your recent talks regarding the issue—in fact it’s how we found you. What is the best part of what you do now? The most challenging?
Thank you for saying so. I love my work. Having the opportunity to share the importance of the battles we fight and win here in the City of Flint is an honor and a privilege, and I will always do everything in my power to use the platform I’ve been given to create real change in this word.
I have the honor of knowing the faces behind the kits. It’s their courage and tenacity that gets me out of bed every morning. I fight for them. They fight for every one of us.
What can others do to help (prosecutors, forensic DNA professionals, government, law enforcement, the public at large)?
Open hearts, open minds, open wallets. Look, this work is not free. It deserves the continued support of every one of us – until every kit is tested.
What does the future hold for you?
I will always be fighting for justice. I may do it on a different battleground, and the battle itself will always morph and change, but I am a career soldier.
Thank you for taking the time to chat with us Jennifer! We’re looking forward to seeing your presentation during the General Sessions at ISHI.
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