In a somewhat surprising but incredibly uplifting turn of events, TVs premiere sex crimes detective has dedicated her off-screen life to pursuing justice for sexual-assault survivors.
Mariska Hargitay, the beloved Law & Order: SVU actress, is also the founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation. I Am Evidence, a new documentary premiering on HBO April 16th, focuses on Joyful Hearts years-long cause: the elimination of Americas rape kit backlog.
On Monday night, Hargitay told a rapt audience of friends, foundation board members, film subjects and staff about how the documentary came to bethe genesis being learning about the backlog from Humans Rights Watch in 2009.
Hargitay continued, We were so grateful to figure out where to put our stake in the groundJoyful Heart has been working for so many years on a plan: the six pillars of legislation. We do have a plan, I dont know how many years its gonna take, but its doable, and thats the good news. Its exciting to have a roadmap to get there. New York has fortunately really cleaned up, and has been able to clean up the backlog, Texas and Detroit, each state is working towards it, and we are pushing with all of our might to do that.
I Am Evidence opens on Hargitay, who quickly catches the audience up on how her SVU role educated and galvanized her. Hargitay recalls daily letters from fans opening up about their own sexual assaults; many of the people reaching out were disclosing their stories for the very first time. In what must be the best-case scenario for casting an actress in a crime procedural, Hargitay pushed herself to learn more about these issues, eventually founding Joyful Heart. While I Am Evidence clearly owes a great deal to Hargitay, the film wastes little time pivoting from its benefactress to the hero at the heart of the documentary: Kym Worthy, the Wayne County prosecutor who made it her mission to give Detroits 11,341 untested rape kits the consideration that they deserve.
Joining Hargitay at Monday nights screening, Worthy proudly announced that her team had just sent off the last 617 kits to be tested, but emphasized that the effort to redress over four decades worth of ineptitude and apathy was a struggle.
Detroit declared bankruptcy a few years after [the storage space of backlogged rape kits] was discovered, Worthy recalled. And at the time it would cost anywhere from $1,200 to $1,500 a kit to be tested, thats $12 to $15 million and beyond, and thats just for the testing. Thats not for the investigation, thats not for the prosecutorial costs. We didnt have any money, and I couldnt find anyone to give us the money to begin with. And later on, once it became popular to talk about, four years later the state gave us money. But really it was Mariska and the Joyful Heart Foundation, and some very prominent business men and women that really poured some money into itwhen Mariska came in 2010, it seemed like all the red sea opened, and they listened to her, and it got a lot easier.
While I Am Evidence is preoccupied with the backlog of over 225,000 untested rape kits across the country, the film starts with Worthy in Detroitand for good reason. In addition to highlighting Worthys leadership and dedication, the documentary delves deep into the causes of the backlog, exploring issues that go far beyond a lack of resources. With help from various experts, I Am Evidence paints a damning portrait of police officers who routinely disbelieved and dismissed women, particularly women of color.
Survivors were told, often explicitly, that law enforcement would not be devoting time or effort to their casessending a larger message that, as little as women mattered, as under-prioritized as these crimes were, assaults against women of color matter even less. Officers case notes, unearthed, contained dismissive and offensive language, particularly when the alleged sexual assault victims were black women. Poring through these notes, a pattern emerges of women not being believed, with assumptions that they were not really raped made on the basis of victim-blaming tropes or racial biases.
As Hargitay noted during a discussion after the film, the attitudes of law enforcement officerstheir inability or unwillingness to properly deal with a sexual-assault survivor or pursue their caseis a major impediment to justice. One of the things that we hope so much that comes through in the film is the fact that many people, unfortunately law enforcement as well, dont understand the neurobiology of trauma, Hargitay said. We deal with it on SVU, tonic immobility, fight or flight, freezing, you hear so many survivors say, I frozethats hardwired into usthat idea of law enforcement literally not understanding. They get confusedIm not even blamingthey just go, Well she didnt say anything, she didnt scream, she didnt fight back, she didnt do this or that, and its because they dont understand trauma.
Co-director Geeta Gandbhir noted during the discussion that, This is obviously a fight thats been going on for a really long time for women and for people of color, and people who are economically disenfranchisedits not that our voices havent been out there, its just that we havent necessarily been heard. To have a medium and platform to be heard is incredibly important, and for me it was a huge honor.
While listing a couple of the things that she found most pivotal about the film, Worthy added, The other thing that no film has ever done, as far as Im aware, is show the plight of women of color when theyre victims of sexual assault. Its something Ive been saying for years, and no one really wants to listen, and I think that theyll have to listen now. [I Am Evidence] also shows the juxtaposition between cities and counties that have money, and those that dont. And Im very pleased that were on the right side now, and things are going a lot better for us, partly as a result of us being involved with this film.
Given the myths and biases that surround sexual-assault cases, its possible to understand why so many rape kitspotential evidence against rapists, potential tools in assuring that serial offenders dont assault againhave been allowed to languish in forgotten storage spaces untested. But explanations dont make the backlog any easier to stomach, especially after I Am Evidence puts faces, names, and stories to those untouched kits.
One of the survivors featured in the film is Helena, a vocal advocate who cites her horrific experience as evidence that women, particularly women of color, are not listened to. After she was abducted and assaulted by a stranger, Helena immediately went to the police. She recalled going through a re-traumatizing evidence-collection process, and being subjected to the questioning of indifferent and seemingly disbelieving detectives. In an online testimony, Helena said that, No further contact was initiated by the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department, and they did not return my calls for over 13 years. In one of the films most painful moments, a crying Helena wonders what it was about her that was so unimportantwhy her violent assault didnt seem to matter.
In 2009, after learning about the rape kit backlog, Helena got in touch with advocates who were able to get through to law enforcement; within a week, Helena learned that her kit had been processed, and that there was a match. While Helenas rapist was already in jail, she learned that he was serving time for a nearly identical assault that could have been prevented if my rape kit had been processed. I Am Evidence speaks with the victim of that assault, as well as Michelle Brettin, the Ohio police officer who arrested the serial rapist. In the film, Brettin expresses her shock and disbelief that the Los Angeles Sheriffs Department failed to adequately pursue Helenas case.
On Monday, Brettin gave a teary apology to the group of assembled survivors: Im embarrassed that I was a part of law enforcement thats turned a blind eye to this. And if one person hears what I have to say now, Ill be happy. These women here, no one should have to go through this, and no one should have to be rejected by the keepers of the people, the keepers of the peace. Law enforcement has failed them.
Another featured survivor, Ericka, who is also the Executive Director of the Detroit nonprofit Supreme Transitions, shared her experience watching the film. I had a lot of anxiety leading up to this day, she confessed to the audience. But seeing the film again tonight, and getting my reminder from Mariskathis bracelet, she gave me, says strongand Ive realized how strong I am. I realize how strong our voices are. And as I watched the credits, and I looked at the names, I know those people. This was not for show; this was not done for publicity for Mariska at all. I know every single person on those credits, they have held my hand and told me that they care, and told me how much they care about this project and about me and about the survivors. I dont know how other people feel when theyre in films, but I know those namesThis was made with love.
While Hargitay, directors Gandbhir and Trish Adlesic, and the assembled subjects of the film covered a lot of ground, from the need to further educate medical professionals to pressuring legislators, their discussion ended on their hopes for I Am Evidences immediate impact. Worthy explained, Every time someone sees this film, thats a potential juror, and I hope that they can be better informedBecause youre wearing nice clothes doesnt make you a robbery victim, and because you act a certain way or do certain things shouldnt make you a sexual-assault victim either.
Hargitay had the last word, beginning, Im gonna be super honest right now.
The problem is the victim-blaming attitudes, Hargitay continued. Im going to tell you right now, as the founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation, I was one of those people who had some of those biases. I was! And I got checked, and I got educated. Id love to sit here and tell you how evolved and wise I was from the beginningbut it wasnt like that for me.
She concluded that the issue of the backlog was ultimately one of humanity, insisting, Testing the rape kits is humane, because it treats a person like a person. And so I just want to say that, because we can all sit here and be like, Oh my gosh, those people with the victim-blaming attitudes I was one. And Im so grateful that Im not one anymore. And for all those people who have those attitudes, I hold hope out for them. I hold hope that theyll see the movie and go, Holy shit. Oh my god, Im so sorry. Thats what I hope.