By Kristen Jordan Shamus
Detroit Free Press
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) The at-home test kit would allow assault victims to collect their own DNA evidence — by swabbing and spitting — at home, and allow them to seal it in tamper-proof packaging that could then be brought to a law enforcement office or a college’s Title IX office for testing.
Detroit Free Press
The CEO and founder of MeToo Kit, a company that is bringing to market a do-it-yourself sexual assault test kit, says she got death threats after Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel accused her company of trying to profit from the #MeToo movement.
“We’ve had people saying, ‘I hope you get hit by a (expletive) bus,’ excuse my French,” said Madison Campbell, whose company is based in Brooklyn, New York. “That’s what they’re saying. … If the attorney general wanted to hurt a pair of 23-year-old and 24-year-old women running a small company trying to help sexual assault survivors, she won.”
Nessel’s office sent a cease-and-desist letter to MeToo Kit on Aug. 29, alleging the company is in violation of several sections of Michigan’s Consumer Protection Act by “luring victims into thinking that an at-home-do-it-yourself sexual assault kit will stand up in court,” Nessel said in a news release. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Career prosecutors know that evidence collected in this way would not provide the necessary chain of custody.”
Campbell said since then, “We had to take our office location off our website because we were afraid of being followed home. We had to take partners off our website because our partners were being attacked,” she said. “So I don’t know if this is what she meant to do and intended, but this has really, really hurt us.”
No one from Nessel’s office contacted anyone at MeToo Kit to discuss concerns about the product before the cease-and-desist warning and media alert were issued, Campbell said. The product, she said, has been in development since February, but it’s not yet ready to go to market and no kits have been sold.
“We have barely started,” she said. “It was completely a surprise to us. … All I wanted to do was to work with not only her, but agencies around the country, and I feel like we haven’t been given a chance, you know, to sit down face-to-face and discuss what we can do to move this topic forward.”
Kelly Rossman-McKinney, a spokeswoman for Nessel, acknowledged that the state Attorney General’s Office did not contact anyone at the MeToo Kit company before taking action.
“We don’t do that,” she said. “That’s not what we do. We’re in the process of initiating an investigation. We reach out to them and ask for their response. It’s a formal process.”
The company has until Monday to formally respond to Nessel’s Office, Rossman-McKinney said.
Campbell, who told the Free Press that she was sexually assaulted when she was a junior at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, said she found inspiration and voice in the #MeToo movement and never sought to capitalize on the suffering of rape victims.
“Because of the movement, I was able to actually even start talking about my sexual assault,” Campbell said in a wide-ranging interview with the Free Press. “Before then, I had ignored it. I put it in a deep, dark place, and I shut it down. I felt embarrassed. I felt like my sexual assault was my fault, that I somehow led him on, that maybe I dressed inappropriately. It took me a long time to realize that it was not my fault. And it’s not only me, but it’s thousands and thousands of women, not only in America, but across the world.”
The hashtag #WhyIDidntReport, which trended on Twitter in 2018 after Christine Blasey Ford accused then-Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of molesting her decades earlier, inspired Campbell to think of ways to make reporting easier for sexual assault victims.
“The people who were telling their stories were like me,” she said. “We had the same story. They were embarrassed. They were scared of talking about it. They were afraid of the repercussions. … They thought no one would believe them. You know?”
Campbell said she never reported her own assault.
“I did not feel as if I would be believed,” she said. “I didn’t think anyone was going to understand what had happened. I was so, so, so scared. … And, you know, one of the things that I was so scared about was navigating the process … having to talk to anybody about what happened, having anybody touch me. … I didn’t want anybody to see my body or touch my body. … I lost all that time-sensitive evidence and all the DNA that was on my body.”
The at-home test kit Campbell envisioned would allow assault victims to collect their own DNA evidence — by swabbing and spitting — at home, and allow them to seal it in tamper-proof packaging that could then be brought to a law enforcement office or a college’s Title IX office for testing.
“I decided that there should be another option to give survivors this ability to capture that time-sensitive information,” she said.
“Before we put out a website or did anything, we talked to a bunch of different stakeholders to conduct research, and asked them what they thought about this, and, you know, trying to figure out what the barriers would be so we could start creating a product,” said Campbell, who grew up in a small town near Pittsburgh.
“We have talked to ex-prosecutors. We’ve talked to individuals that have worked in sex crimes in the military. We’ve talked to forensic biologists, a forensic toxicologist, a forensic psychologist.”
But Nessel’s Office says the evidence collected from the MeToo Kit would not be admissible in court.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Rossman-McKinney said. “I think that the intent is heartfelt, but the amount of research required and the comprehension and understanding of what it takes to take care of a victim’s needs and also ideally pursue legal action, none of that was done.
“As an agency that is very aggressive about pursuing sexual assault crimes, I can’t emphasize enough the depth of our concern about this product.”
Among those concerns are chain-of-custody problems that would make it difficult to prove the kits haven’t been tampered with after the evidence is collected, Rossman-McKinney said. There’s also an issue with the kind of evidence and the details that might be lacking in a self-collection kit. Plus, she said, victims would fail to get appropriate medical care after an assault.
“All it does is continue to defy logic in terms of chain of custody,” Rossman-McKinney said. “And if you look at what a real sexual assault kit looks like and contains compared to the MeToo Kit, which is swab, spit and seal, there is a dramatic difference.
“The MeToo Kit really undermines the need for any victim of sexual assault to see a health care provider. … The injuries that sexual assault victims incur are often not visible to the naked eye. In addition, there is grave concern about the physical, as well as mental and emotional trauma that a victim goes through. If you were to seek a sexual kit at a hospital, there would be a victim advocate with you from the minute you walked in and that person would not leave your side.”
Campbell said Nessel’s Office came to those conclusions without talking to the company about what it’s doing to address those problems.
“We’re creating a proprietary tamper-proof device,” she said. “We’re creating a digital timestamp. We’re creating witness testimonies. We’re trying to do so much research, and so much background work on this before we would even go to launch to ensure that by the time that we do go to launch, it is as foolproof as humanly possible.”
One barrier to reporting sexual assault, she said, is access to health care.
“We are not saying we’re a substitute for a medical exam,” Campbell said of the MeToo Kits. “We believe that every survivor should be encouraged to seek health care after an assault. But you know, there is that large portion of survivors who never get the chance to go to the hospital, whether it’s for financial issues, no transportation or because they’re living in a rural area. … We have never said that consumers cannot go to the hospital or to the police. We’re saying there are tons and tons and tons of women out there that do not go forward with a sexual assault report.”
She said she was confused about why Nessel’s Office sent a cease-and-desist warning to MeToo Kit when another company, PRESERVEkit, is already selling a similar product for $29.95 on Amazon.
“I don’t know why they came after us when we haven’t even sold anything yet,” Campbell said. “This is why I think the cease-and-desist is kind of absurd, and we feel like we’re being attacked, even though we haven’t done anything yet.”
Rossman-McKinney said Friday that the Attorney General’s Office hadn’t learned about PRESERVEkit until earlier that week.
“It is not at this point doing the level of marketing and what we consider to be misleading marketing,” she said, “but it is likely that we will take some action against them at some point as well.”
The Free Press reached out by email to PRESERVEkit, but got no response.
The company posted a special statement to its website, saying: “Every year, an estimated 1,155,000 women are sexually assaulted and don’t report it or have a sexual assault kit done at a medical facility. The PRESERVEkit is an option for this group of victims who don’t collect evidence.
“Crime victims give evidence to law enforcement that is admissible in court every day. The court system doesn’t rule out evidence for the sole reason that it has been provided by the victim. There are myriad reasons why evidence is or is not admissible in court. A blanket statement that a victim collecting evidence of sexual assault with an at-home kit does not apply. Every person within the chain of custody is responsible for the proper handling of evidence.”
The state Attorney General’s Office issued a consumer alert Thursday about all do-it-yourself sexual assault kits, and urged any Michigander who has used such a kit to file a consumer complaint. The alert noted that medical forensic exams for people who’ve been sexually assaulted in Michigan are free within 120 hours of the assault.
Campbell said her company never intended to profit from sales of the MeToo Kit.
The initial plan, she said, was to donate the at-home tests to universities and victims of assault or to sell them for “cheaper than the Uber you take to get you to the hospital.
“A lot of people have been saying that … we are trying to profit off of the MeToo movement.
“The kit was named MeToo because it immediately identified what the kit is there to support. The kit is there to support survivors of sexual assault who have been silenced. One of the most important things that I want to say is, if the name of the product interferes with helping survivors, I will change the name. I will 100% change the name.
“I did not think it would spark this much criticism.”
Contact Kristen Jordan Shamus: 313-222-5997 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.
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