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Posts published by “Cameron Beach”

Newly jobless hit bumps filing for unemployment pay

Now that state and local government orders have shuttered restaurants, bars, gyms and many other businesses, the ranks of people laid off in North Carolina keeps swelling. 

Gov. Roy Cooper has made moves to simplify signing up for unemployment benefits. But people trying to get that job done say glitches with a state website can make it tough to get started. 

Alexis Graves waited tables at Durham’s celebrated Italian restaurant Gocciolina before she was let go on March 17. Though Gocciolina remains open for take-out, without floor service, Graves and all other waiters are out of work.

When Graves got word of the layoffs from her manager, she immediately started filing for unemployment, a process that can be done online. She logged into the state website around 3:30 p.m, she said.

“I sat down and started trying,” Graves said. “It was so slow, and then things started timing out.”

Graves finally gave up and restarted her application later in the evening. She was able to finish around 1 a.m., she said.

“It was seriously glitchy,” Graves said. “The website doesn’t function well, even in the best of times. But right now, it’s frightening.”

Almost 220,000 North Carolinians filed for unemployment between March 16 and 26, according to Larry Parker, spokesperson for the Division of Employment Security. That’s 60,000 more than all the unemployment claims filed in North Carolina throughout 2019. 

The Division of Employment Security recently posted 50 new jobs it will fill to handle the influx of claims, Parker said. One listing, for a call center representative at the division, notes that applicants can expect to take around 60-80 calls per day.

But calling to file an unemployment claim can be even slower than filing online, according to some people recently made jobless.

Ashley Zepeda at her former job tending bar at Bartaco in Raleigh. Photo courtesy of Zepeda

Ashley Zepeda was laid off from her job as a bartender at Raleigh’s Bartaco on Monday. When she tried to file for unemployment online, the website kept crashing, she said. So, she tried calling the department. 

“I got an automated message,” Zepeda said. “It’s a lady who says, ‘I’m sorry, there’s too many people calling. Try again later, goodbye.’ Then it hangs up on you.”

Zepeda kept trying the state website, but it continued to crash. “You can’t do it online, and you can’t do it on the phone,” she said.

Complaints about the situation are showing up on social media, including posts on Durham’s Reddit thread. People across North Carolina have reported a glitchy unemployment website and long wait times on the phone. 

The Division of Employment Security acknowledges the issues with their phone lines, writing online “our customer call center is experiencing high call volume” and urging people to use their online system to avoid waiting on hold.

“We had some initial web issues last week but upgraded our server capacity and that has helped tremendously,” wrote Parker in an email. “We are asking that people make sure they walk through the process — not run.”

Last week, North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore created a remote legislative committee to address the impacts of coronavirus. That group drafted a bill, named the COVID-19 Response Act, to finalize the changes the governor had already made to unemployment benefits. 

Those changes include removing the one-week waiting period, giving employers tax credits for paying into unemployment funds, and allowing employees with reduced work hours to apply for benefits. The committee meets again next Tuesday. 

After Graves finished her unemployment application online, she waited four days for confirmation that it had been received. A week later, she found her weekly award amount lacking, she said.

As a waitress, Graves’ benefits are based only on her hourly wage, not including tips. That makes her award amount lower than it should be if it included her true income, she said.

“I’m trying to decide whether to dispute it,” Graves said. “But I probably won’t. It’ll just make the whole thing take longer.”

She said she doesn’t want to try using the website again or calling the Division of Employment Security.

“I’d rather just have something, even if it’s barely enough to live on,” she said.

Graves had some words of advice for anyone trying to apply for unemployment benefits in the coming weeks.

“Don’t try to call them. Don’t try to do it through mail. Don’t use your browser’s back button,” she warned. “And make sure everything you put in the first time is accurate, because if you have to edit something, it probably won’t work.”

At top: Unemployment filings in North Carolina spiked in March. Chart by Cameron Beach

Durham owner to Gov. Cooper: Food, drink industry needs more aid

After ordering restaurants and bars across North Carolina today to shut down all but take-out service, Gov. Roy Cooper announced his plan to support the restaurant industry: easier access to unemployment benefits.

But a Durham bar owner has organized a drive to tell Cooper that the industry needs much more to survive efforts to contain COVID-19.

Lindsey Andrews, co-owner of Arcana bar in Durham, posted a letter online urging Cooper to provide more aid during the coronavirus closures.

As of early Tuesday evening, over 160 restaurant owners, bartenders, and other food service workers across the Triangle had signed on.

“We, as employees and owners, will lose significant income or be laid off,” the letter states. “We will not survive without immediate and decisive action from the government.”

The letter calls on Cooper to support unemployment benefits for all workers, eliminate payroll taxes and mandate rent, loan and utility cuts for businesses and employees harmed by the closures.

In a press conference today announcing the closures, Cooper discussed unemployment, promising that the state will remove barriers such as the one-week waiting periods to apply for benefits. North Carolina also won’t ask employers to fund benefits for layoffs related to coronavirus, he said.

But for many restaurant and bar owners, that isn’t enough, Andrews said.

“The unemployment issue was a big one, but that’s not going to pay people what they need when they’re losing so much,” she said. “We really need a moratorium on rent and loan payments.”

Andrews had to shut down Arcana completely. Unlike some restaurants, bars can’t offer take-out options.

“We’ve asked for a rent abatement from our landlord, but we’re hoping for a directive from higher up,” she said. “Worst-case scenario, this could go on for months.”

Chef Matt Kelly owns five popular Durham restaurants, including Vin Rouge, Mothers & Sons Trattoria, and the recently reopened Saint James Seafood. Tuesday, for the first time in his career, he was calling employees one-by-one to lay them off.

“I’ve never done it,” he said. “I’ve never laid one person off. But no one really has a choice.”

Kelly has been part of multiple efforts to advocate for relief from local, state, and federal authorities, he said. Eliminating payroll tax and starting rent abatements are some of the measures that could provide “immediate relief” for restaurants and their employees, he said.

Andrews said that her business’ needs will depend on how long closures last. If Arcana can’t open for more than a few weeks, she would need a “total freeze” on expenses to make it through.

But “we could go longer if we get the kind of aid we need,” she said.

Both Kelly and Andrews want to reopen after the COVID-19 crisis fades. Kelly worries most about Saint James Seafood, his newest restaurant that reopened only two months ago after it was badly damaged in last April’s gas explosion in downtown Durham.  

“We had to use all our capital on Saint James,” he said.

Both owners agreed that aid from the state could significantly improve prospects for many others in their shoes.

“I don’t know if there’s going to be any viability for anyone unless we get more serious relief,” Andrews said.

At top: There was no sign of customers walking or driving on a stretch of Ninth Street, usually a busy commercial center, Tuesday morning. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone

Duke Hospital sends bill collectors after student rape victim

In the early morning on Dec. 13, 2018, a Duke student was sitting in her apartment’s common room in the university’s Central Campus. She was cramming for her organic chemistry final when a man she didn’t know opened the door. She said the stranger entered, threatened her with a knife, and raped her.

The student, then a sophomore, immediately went to the Duke Hospital emergency room. She wanted a sexual assault nurse examiner to collect a rape kit, an invasive evidence collection process that often takes hours and requires victims to describe the details of their assault. But that kit could provide crucial evidence for police to catch her assailant.

Police have not announced any arrests in the case. But six months after the assault, the student received a call from a number she didn’t recognize. 

“This is a call from a debt collection agency for Duke Health,” the person said, according to the student. The caller informed her that she owed hundreds of dollars for her emergency room visit for the rape examination.

“Before that, I had no idea I owed any money,” the student, who asked not to be identified, told The 9th Street Journal in an interview. “I asked them to talk to my mom because it was really traumatic and hard, but they didn’t do that. They kept calling me over and over again.”

*  *  *

Rape victims are not supposed to be charged for sexual assault exams, but the rules have loopholes.

The federal Violence Against Women Act requires that all states cover the cost of the exams. But beyond the exams themselves, each state can decide what additional hospital services they’ll cover.

North Carolina’s interpretation is called the Rape Victims Assistance Program. The program offers hospitals up to $800 for a sexual assault exam: $350 for the sexual assault nurse examiner, $250 for the hospital facility fees, and $200 for “other expenses,” including sexually transmitted disease antibiotics or pregnancy tests for the victim. Victims should never be directly billed by a hospital for the examination, according to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety.

But Molly Chadbourne, a former sexual assault nurse examiner in Durham, said victims still get charged for other services. 

“There are still fees for checking into the hospital, for getting an X-ray, or for needing other care,” she explained. “All that other stuff, patients can get charged for. Sexual assault patients definitely get bills.”

Chadbourne said some states cover all of a sexual assault victim’s other hospital bills, while others cap their payments at a certain amount. She noted the $800 cap in North Carolina and said, “$800 is nothing at a hospital.”

Though the Violence Against Women Act is supposed to protect victims from being billed after a sexual assault, many women have reported experiences like the student’s, according to accounts in news articles and websites. The practice is caused by a combination of state policy, billing mistakes, and poor communication between debt collectors and hospitals.

*  *  *

When the student went to Duke Hospital last December after being assaulted, she didn’t bring her insurance card.

“They said that was fine at the time,” she said. She was told that she wouldn’t have to pay for her sexual assault exam and that she didn’t have to worry about billing.

A few hours after the assault, police sent a Duke Alert, the university’s warning system for crime and severe weather. “A student reported that between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. this morning… she was awakened by a white male with short brown hair and a perfume smell about him,” read the alert emailed to students, faculty, and staff. “He threatened her with a knife, put on a condom, and forced her to have sex.”

The student was embarrassed by the detailed university-wide alert. “Reading the email was really hard,” she said. “They never asked me if it was okay to send out that email, or if I even wanted to talk to the police. They just said, ‘You need to talk to this officer,’ and I did it because it felt like I had to.”

Months after the assault, she was beginning to heal. She was put in contact with the Duke Women’s Center and started seeing a psychiatrist.

Duke Hospital has an online billing system. But the student said she didn’t think she would have bills, so she never checked it. After four months, Duke Health sends all unpaid medical bills to debt collection agencies.

Then, she got the first call from a debt collector. The calls kept coming.

“We are (a) debt collector,” a voicemail message from the agency said. “This call is an attempt to collect a debt and any information obtained will be used for that purpose.”

“They’re always from a random number, and never the same number twice,” the student said. “I told them my insurance card information, and I got confirmation that everything was worked out over the summer. But they continue to call and say we owe them even more.”

When she called Duke Health to report what was happening, the billing office told her that she had an outstanding charge. She asked that the debt collectors contact her mom instead so she wouldn’t have to explain her situation to strangers. She and her mom are still working through the bill.

Her bill from her emergency room visit on Dec. 13 is labeled “Accounts with Collections Agency” in Duke’s online billing system. But she said she has difficulty determining how much she owes because the collectors have a separate billing system. 

The collectors keep calling, every few months.

The student authorized Duke Health to discuss her bills with The 9th Street Journal, but a Duke Health spokeswoman declined to comment on the student’s situation. 

*  *  *

Across the country, victims have reported getting billed by hospitals after a sexual assault.

“We definitely hear about this,” said Grace Frances, the director of community parternships at End Violence Against Women International, a nonprofit that educates professionals about sexual assault. “It is definitely still a problem.”

In 2017, a study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that the average hospital bill after a rape was $6,737. After billing insurance, sexual assault victims were left with an average of $948 to pay out of pocket. And 88% of medical records indicated that victims were charged on the day they visited the hospital.

“Oftentimes, the charges that they’re seeing aren’t the cost of the rape kit,” said Ashley Tennessee, the lead researcher on the study and an assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina. “Most people who are sexually assaulted have additional costs. They might want tests completed, or treatments for physical abuse.”

Tennessee sees the problem as twofold: Victims are sometimes mistakenly charged for their rape kit exam. But more often, they’re billed for treatment related to their sexual assault. 

If victims check into the emergency room, they can also be charged a facility fee. Duke itself acknowledges that going to its emergency room will cost patients “at least $1,000.” 

Asked if Duke Health has a policy about charging for sexual assault exams, a spokeswoman declined to comment.

Tennessee recommends that states broaden their policies to reimburse hospitals for more than just the sexual assault exam. She also hopes that hospitals will charge sexual assault victims through a separate billing process to ensure that no mistakes are made.

“Someone has to pay for it,” she said. “At this point, it’s the victim.”

*  *  *

For sexual assault survivors who have been billed by hospitals in North Carolina, there is another option: the crime victim compensation fund. Victims of violent crime can apply for medical compensation up to $30,000, including physical treatment and future counseling. 

But there are bureaucratic hurdles that can be challenging for survivors of sexual assault. To submit a claim, a victim must provide a police report. That means they have to report their rape to police before they’re eligible for the compensation.

“I think you should be able to come into the emergency room and say, ‘I was sexually assaulted, I want to get medical care,’ and get that for free,” Chadbourne said. “But that’s not how it works.”

Even for victims who are eligible to apply to the compensation fund, there are still barriers. They have to collect documents and get them notarized before submitting their application, and will likely wait months to receive compensation. And in the meantime, they’ll still be billed for their sexual assault exam visit.

“It’s unacceptable,” Frances said. “You’re telling victims that you don’t care what it means to them when they get a bill in the mail, and their family sees it.”

“It’s putting the responsibility on the victim to get themselves reimbursed,” Chadbourne said. “And that’s hard.”

For the Duke student, it is also confusing.

“We’re unsure about what the bill is for at this point, because we’ve already paid so much,” she said.

She also feels betrayed by the institution that failed to protect her while on campus. 

“I hated their whole response,” she said. “They just sent us to a collection agency.”

9th Street Journal reporter Cameron Beach can be reached at  cameronbeach6@gmail.com

Weeks into McDougald Terrace evacuation, a mother yearns for normalcy

When Shimey Harvey first found out she was getting a public housing apartment at McDougald Terrace three years ago, she rejoiced.  

Harvey was living with her best friend in Chapel Hill, sharing a single bedroom with her daughter and son. She worked the night shift at Cruizers, a gas station chain, and got a call from the Durham Housing Authority when she returned home one morning.  

“They said, ‘Your lease is ready to be signed’,” Harvey remembered. “I said, ‘I’ll be there!’”  

That day, she signed a lease for a three-bedroom apartment in the city’s oldest and largest public lodging, a site long plagued by substandard conditions. But to Harvey, the apartment was a new beginning.  

“I cried by myself for an hour after I got back to Chapel Hill,” Harvey said. “It had been so long since I had my own space.”  

When her son Robert, then eight, got home from school that day, Harvey put an envelope on the table with the McDougald Terrace apartment keys inside. Open it, she told Robert.

“He looked and said, ‘Keys! Mommy, you got your own apartment!’ He cried and cried,” Harvey said.  

McDougald Terrace quickly became home. But Harvey and Robert, now a sixth grader at Lowe’s Grove Middle School, left Jan. 3, when the housing authority started evacuating 270 families after carbon monoxide and other hazards were detected in apartments.  

Losing home

Shimey Harvey and her son, Robert, in their one-room lodging at Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road. Photo by Cameron Beach

Harvey, Robert, and other affected families didn’t simply lose their mailing address. They lost child care, social communities, stability, and, in Harvey’s case, her job.  

Harvey and her son are only two of nearly 900 displaced McDougald Terrace residents, mostly women and their children, living in 16 hotels across Durham.  

After multiple residents were treated for carbon monoxide exposure, the housing authority evacuated nearly 75% of McDougald Terrace’s 360 apartments, including Harvey’s. Residents who were not required to leave were allowed to if they wished.

Evacuations were originally planned for a week. Instead, they’ve dragged on for more than a month. After weeks of inspections, DHA found that 211 gas stoves, 38 furnaces and 35 hot water heaters needed replacing or repairing due to inadequate venting of potentially lethal carbon monoxide. Contractors are also repairing electrical wiring, cleaning up mold, and tackling insect infestations in the 67-year-old public housing complex.  

After multiple extensions and an estimated $4.3 million worth of repairs, DHA officials have said they expect Harvey and other residents can begin moving back to McDougald Terrace this month.   

Harvey wants to get back home. Another week in the Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road means another week of no kitchen, no job and lots of family anxiety.  

Coping with evacuation

When using public transportation, Harvey takes two buses to travel between her temporary lodging and McDougald Terrace.

Each morning in the hotel, Harvey sets her alarm at 5 a.m. to wake Robert for school. He needs to get up early to eat the hotel’s continental breakfast at 6:30 a.m. or make it to Lowe’s Grove in time for school breakfast.   

Once Robert is where he needs to be, Harvey does laundry, stops at the grocery store, and runs other errands. Then, she takes an hour-long trip on two bus routes from the Quality Inn to McDougald Terrace to meet Robert’s school bus. Together, they make the hour-long journey back to their hotel.  

“When you don’t have a car, it’s a lot,” she said.  

Transportation isn’t the only challenge Harvey is dealing with. Before the evacuation, Harvey worked part-time in housekeeping at Rose Manor, a local nursing home. If she couldn’t make it back to McDougald Terrace in time to get Robert off the bus, that was okay. Friends and family there stepped in to help.  

Harvey checks on her apartment when she reaches McDougald Terrace. Photo by Corey Pilson

“My child care was my community,” Harvey explained. “Robert’s father lived across from me at McDougald. His godmother lived about four houses down.”  Now, with displaced residents spread out across 16 different hotels, Harvey has lost that community — and child care for Robert.

“I can’t bring him to work with me, and I have nobody to watch him,” she said. “So I had to let this job go.”  

Harvey resigned from Rose Manor on Jan. 23. Her boss told her he’d hold the job if she could return within a week, she said. “It takes a village, but I don’t have a village right now,” Harvey said. “I have no child care.”  

Harvey has worried for weeks that Robert’s health could suffer from this crisis. At McDougald Terrace, she started sleeping with the windows open to reduce the risk he breathed in carbon monoxide. At the Quality Inn room where Harvey and Robert live, packed with snacks and shoes and bags of clothing, Robert has little room to move.  

“Our children can’t run and play like before,” Harvey said.  

DHA has been providing daily stipends to displaced McDougald Terrace residents. Those living in hotels with kitchens receive $30 per adult and $15 per child each day, while those without kitchens, including Harvey and her son, receive twice that amount. Harvey is grateful for the money she’s received from DHA.  

“The stipends they’ve been giving me have helped,” she said. Harvey has used hers to buy cooking supplies for her hotel room, like a microwave and a pressure cooker.  

Space is at a premium in the hotel room. Harvey uses what’s available, including a bedside table, to store her and her son’s belongings. Photo by Corey Pilson

From their room at the Quality Inn, Harvey and Robert can walk to fast food vendors like COOK OUT, McDonald’s, and Bojangles’. But Harvey wants to feed her son healthier meals.  

“I just started trying Zaxby’s, because they have salads,” she said. “I’m trying to be healthy for him, but it’s expensive. Money goes quick.”  

Eager for normal

Volunteers from across the city have come together to support displaced McDougald Terrace residents. They’ve started donation websites, served meals and coordinated transportation.  

Frances Castillo, one of those volunteers, helped start a GoFundMe page for residents. Some of the funds Castillo and the team have raised are used to cook and deliver hot meals to each of the 16 hotels. Harvey and Robert have enjoyed three of those meals so far.  

Volunteers also see firsthand the toll displacement has taken on residents.  

“One woman I heard from now has a commute over an hour each way to get to work because she’s no longer near a direct bus route,” Castillo said. “Imagine being moved with none of your belongings, across town, into one small room.”  

Harvey doesn’t have to imagine. Moving all her family’s necessities — clothes, snacks for Robert and school supplies — from a three-bedroom apartment into a one-room hotel reminds Harvey of all the times she’s spent without a place of her own.  

“It’s like I’m in the New York shelter system again,” she said during an interview in her hotel room.  

Robert, at home on a weekend morning, nodded his head. “All of us were cramped up in one room when we were there,” he said.  

Harvey is frustrated by what she sees as negligence from DHA. She wants people to be held accountable for dangerous conditions at McDougald Terrace, which has failed repeated inspections in recent years. But above all, she wants her life back.  

“I want to be able to go to church,” she said. “I want to be able to make my son happy. That’s it. Stability. That’s all I want.”

At top: Shimey Harvey departs her temporary home, Quality Inn & Suites on Hillsborough Road, on foot. Photo by Corey Pilson

Correction: This story was modified to correct a misspelling of Shimey Harvey’s first name.

The life cycle of a sexual assault evidence kit

It starts when the emergency room door opens.

A victim walks in. She may have been sexually assaulted an hour ago or a day ago, but now, she’s decided to see a doctor. She might walk in with a friend or a parent, or she might sit alone and wait for the sexual assault nurse examiner to arrive.

“I just introduce myself at the beginning,” says Molly Chadbourne, a former sexual assault nurse examiner in Durham who currently trains other nurses. “I explain who I am and why I’m there to talk with them. Then, I ask them what they want. Do they want a kit?”

This is where a sexual assault kit begins. Its life cycle may last months, or even years.

The nurse ushers the victim into a small hospital room where they have privacy. Chadbourne likes to start with the easier questions: “What’s your medical history? What types of medicine do you take?” Then, she’ll ask the harder question. “Can you tell me what happened to you?”

The nurse listens, letting the victim take breaks and reminding her that it’s okay to tell her story imperfectly.

“We know that some people aren’t going to remember everything right away, and they might not remember it linearly,” Chadbourne says. “We have to give people permission to start talking about whatever they can, even if it’s not at the beginning.”

Then, the nurse starts to assemble the kit, a small white cardboard box with “Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit” printed on the front. 

The nurse starts collecting “known” samples, or the victim’s DNA. She’ll gently swab around the victim’s cheeks, gums, and lips. She’ll ask the victim to take off her underwear and seal it in a bag labeled “Underpants”. She’ll pluck exactly 50 hairs out of the victim’s head and then comb through her pubic hair, securing any hairs that fall off into a small envelope. 

Then the nurse collects “unknown” samples, which could include the assailant’s DNA. The nurse will swab any place on the body where the victim says she was assaulted. “It’s anywhere that was licked, bit, or touched by the assailant,” Chadbourne says.

She says “anything that’s on their body might be relevant”. Victims and nurses alike understand that the victim’s body is a crime scene.

The nurse takes photos of the woman, documenting any cuts, scrapes, or bruises. “I offer to let people look at the pictures,” Chadbourne says. “I try to give them as much control over the process as possible.” At any point, she notes, a victim can stop the kit collection.

After two hours, the nurse has packed away dozens of cotton swabs, photographs of injuries, and envelopes of hair into the sexual assault kit. She closes the lid of the white cardboard box and places it in storage, where the kit waits for law enforcement to come pick it up the next morning.

***

When the kit arrives at the police department, an officer will take a first look. That officer might notice if the kit is connected to a consent case, a case in which the victim and the perpetrator both agree that they had sex, but disagree on whether it was consensual. Three years ago, a consent kit would get put back on the evidence shelves at the police department instead of getting tested. It could stay there for over 30 years.

“When I was seeing patients, I couldn’t say to them, ‘Your kit will never get tested, because you know the person that assaulted you,’” Chadbourne says. “Doing this really invasive process and knowing in the back of your mind that this kit will probably never be tested… it’s a really hard pill to swallow.”

But today, with the statewide push to send all kits to the State Crime Lab, that kit won’t sit on an evidence shelf if it doesn’t meet testing requirements. Instead, an officer will log it into the North Carolina State Crime Lab’s database. A technician at the lab will accept the kit, and the officer will drive it to Raleigh, where the State Crime Lab is located.

“We place the kit into a vault until it’s time to be worked,” says Jody West, forensic sciences manager at the State Crime Lab. “Then we open it up, and start with inventory.”

Every sexual assault kit is a little different “It’s a box, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all box,” according to Chadbourne and the State Crime Lab takes note of every swab, photo, and hair inside.

A lab technician first takes a tiny portion of the swab and uses a chemical to tease out the DNA from its cotton. “It’s like cracking open an egg and removing the yolk,” West explains.

Lab technicians then use a machine to separate the yolk — human DNA — from any other type of genetic material. In sexual assault cases, they’re usually looking for male DNA. “This is the decision point,” West says. “If we determine there’s not enough male DNA, we’ll stop.”

If the kit moves ahead, it goes through amplification, or copying the yolk. The assailant’s DNA fragments are heated and cycled through a hefty gray machine — in just thirty cycles, a billion copies of that DNA are made.

The last step is electrophoresis, or separating the yolk. Analysts use an electric field to detach different fragments of DNA. The result is a complete DNA profile. “It looks a lot like a heartbeat,” West says.

After hours in the emergency room, days with law enforcement and up to five weeks at the lab, this is what a completed sexual assault kit looks like: A series of peaks on a computer screen.

Those peaks the DNA profile of the assailant will be entered into a database of millions of offenders across the country. A computer will scan each offender’s profile, checking for a perfect match. If the all of the peaks line up, the computer spits out a name. Then, it’s up to the police to investigate the sexual assault.

That is the life cycle of one sexual assault kit. To clear the backlog of 15,160, North Carolina has thousands more to go.

“Most people, if they’ve ever heard of a rape kit before, it’s from watching Law and Order SVU,” Chadbourne says. “They think it gets solved in 60 minutes. The truth is, it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.”

A sexual assault evidence kit. Photo provided by Molly Chadbourne

Resources for survivors:

Durham Crisis Response Center

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: What is a sexual assault forensic exam?

North Carolina Sexual Assault Kit Tracking 

North Carolina Office for Victims of Crime: Crime compensation

Police make three arrests after testing old sexual assault kits

In 2017, Michael Brooks Jr. was arrested for kidnapping, assaulting, and raping an elderly woman. Now, after testing evidence from a sexual assault kit that went untested for three years, police say they believe Brooks committed another rape a year earlier.

Brooks, 45, is one of three men Durham police suspect of committing multiple rapes after evidence in old sexual assault kits revealed DNA matches in separate crimes.

After discovering a backlog of over 1,700 untested sexual assault kits in 2018, the Durham Police Department has begun to pull those kits off the shelves and test their contents. Now, just over one year into the process, police have made their first three arrests connected to the testing of old kits.

***

In March 2018, the North Carolina State Crime Lab announced that law enforcement agencies had 15,160 untested sexual assault kits across the state. That discovery prompted movement in the capital and among individual law enforcement agencies. After decades of stasis, police and sheriffs’ offices began sending in their untested sexual assault kits.

So far, North Carolina law enforcement offices have submitted over 8,000 kits to the State Crime Lab for testing. Cities from Winston-Salem to Charlotte have reopened cold-case sexual assaults and charged suspects.

The Durham Police Department — the jurisdiction with the largest backlog in the state in 2018 — is joining those cities by charging three suspects identified through the testing of old kits.

Brooks was served an arrest warrant for a 2016 rape while in jail, where he waits to stand trial for rape and assault charges from 2017. Police also arrested Isiah Anthony Townes Jr., 22, and indicted Ronnie Porter, 45, for rapes committed in 2016 and 2014, respectively. 

“We’ve had some good success stories,” said Lieutenant Stephen Vaughan, assistant commander of the Criminal Investigations Division. “We’re looking at sending every kit we can.”

Vaughan estimates that the Durham police have sent in around 400 kits for testing so far. But the process is complicated by the different statuses of kits in the police inventory. 192 of Durham’s 1,711 kits are related to cases that have already been resolved in court, and 166 are marked as “unfounded.”

Kits marked as “unfounded” means that the officers who originally investigated the case believed that no crime occurred. But Vaughan and his team are still reviewing those cases to make sure the original designation was correct. “If there are any questions, we’re going to reopen that case and send the kit as well,” he said.

Police are even looking through cases that have already been resolved in court. In some cases, defendants who faced multiple charges accepted a plea deal that did not involve any sexual assault charges. Now, they could be held accountable for those crimes, too. 

***

Sending kits for testing at the State Crime Lab is just the beginning of the process for clearing the backlog at the Durham Police Department.

Take Brooks’ case. The State Crime Lab checked DNA evidence from the sexual assault kit with a federal database that contains DNA profiles from convicted offenders across the country. That’s when they found a match: the unknown DNA profile from the kit matched Brooks. 

After that, the Durham Police Department reopened the cold case and got to work. But they haven’t been working alone.

Durham’s Sexual Assault Response Team also includes the Durham Crisis Response Center, the District Attorney’s Special Victims Unit, and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program at Duke Hospital. 

“When the Police Department started getting to the point where information from the Crime Lab was coming back, they realized they needed to have a plan for how to contact the victims,” said Charlene Reiss, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Response Team at the Durham Crisis Response Center. Her team helps police form relationships with victims who may experience trauma from reliving a sexual assault.

“We sit in a room and go through these cases as a group,” Reiss explained. “We really try to figure out how to keep the victim’s needs at the forefront as the Police Department figures out how to move forward.”

***

The Police Department still has hundreds of kits to prepare for testing, including some that date back over thirty years. But the Sexual Assault Response Team is determined to clear the backlog.

“These are the cases that most need to be prosecuted,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, lead prosecutor in the Special Victims Unit. “We’re getting CODIS hits on serial rapists.”

Even so, she knows that the process is only just beginning. “I think the goal for this is roughly six years,” she said. “And that’s only to test them all. If the last cold case kit gets tested 5 years from now, it’ll be 7 years from now before it goes to trial.”

Brooks’ case will also likely take years to reach its conclusion. This week, the District Attorney’s office will meet with Brooks’ victims to attempt to work out a plea deal for both the 2016 and 2017 rape cases. Brooks is currently in jail on a $1,750,000 bond. His lawyer estimates that both cases will come to trial in the summer of 2020.

Durham accepts $1 million to clear sexual assault kit backlog

On Nov. 4, the Durham Police Department secured $1 million from the federal government to help clear the city’s sexual assault kit backlog.

In a unanimous vote, the City Council approved the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant. Since 2015, SAKI grants have been used to fund overburdened crime labs, test over 47,000 sexual assault kits across 35 states, and even help catch one of the deadliest serial killers in U.S. history.

Now, the Durham Police Department will use the grant to tackle its backlog of 1,711 sexual assault kits — the most of any jurisdiction across North Carolina.

***

In 2017, the North Carolina State Crime Lab began counting all untested sexual assault kits across the state, joining 36 other states that had audited their inventories. It discovered the largest backlog of any state in the country: 15,160 untested kits.

Nowhere in North Carolina was the problem larger than in Durham, where police found 1,711 kits from assaults dating back as far as 1988.

“It came as a shock that Durham had so many,” said Charlene Reiss, the Sexual Assault Response Team coordinator at the Durham Crisis Response Center.

The State Crime Lab noted that some of those untested kits may have been resolved in court or marked as “unfounded,” which means that police believed a crime didn’t occur. The rest of the kits — those that were never given a reason for remaining on the shelf — are marked as “other”.

Not only did Durham police find the largest backlog of untested kits, but they also harbored one of the largest portions of “other” kits — those that remained untested for no given reason.

Why, especially in a city as progressive as Durham, did sexual assault kits pile up?

Some factors were outside their control, police wrote in the 2018 SAKI grant application. The State Crime Lab changed their policies about which sexual assault kits were eligible to be tested, causing confusion among officers. And some of the kits in Durham police’s possession were connected to cases already resolved in court.

But police also found that some investigators didn’t know a sexual assault kit could be submitted. Other officers “overlooked sending it,” according to the grant application.

Those familiar with the backlog hesitate to blame police. “There are definitely things that fell through the cracks,” Reiss said. “But for many years, the State Crime Lab was so backed up that it took years to get results back.”

That’s when the State Crime Lab asked police jurisdictions to stop sending consent cases, or cases where both parties admit that sex did occur, according to Reiss.

“Testing that kit wouldn’t help in that particular case,” Reiss said. “In those situations, it doesn’t come down to proving whether or not sex happened; it comes down to proving consent. So a lot of things on the shelf in Durham were consent cases, and they were told not to send those.”

Now, as part of the effort to clear North Carolina’s backlog, the lab is asking police to send all their untested kits. Durham, with the support of its SAKI grant, is beginning to do that.

***

Durham police, prosecutors, and victim advocates agree that to tackle a backlog this large, they need help.

“Our office is already understaffed,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, an Assistant District Attorney. “Right now, the older cases that are coming through — we’re just adding them on top of our duties. It’s too much.”

Each sexual assault kit costs about $700 to test, according to the North Carolina Attorney General’s office. With Durham’s 1,711 kits, that puts the cost of testing the backlog at nearly $1.2 million.

But that estimate doesn’t include the cost of the investigative work that often happens after testing.

“With such a large backlog … the DPD does not have the resources to investigate these backlogged cases and also focus on current cases,” the SAKI grant application says.

That’s why Durham police are using the grant to create a new investigative team: the Cold Case Unit.

The Cold Case Unit will have two full-time investigators dedicated to reopening sexual assault cases and a bilingual witness assistant to support victims through the justice system.

SAKI grant money is also going to the Durham Crisis Response Center, which will fund a new advocate to assist with calling victims. The District Attorney’s office will also hire a full-time prosecutor to bring cold case sexual assaults to trial.

District Attorney Satana Deberry is ready to reprioritize sexual assault in her office.

“Part of the reason that sexual assault is underreported is because people don’t feel comfortable coming to the justice system,” Deberry said. “It’s important for us to signal to the community that we take these things seriously.”

“We spend a lot of time talking about the violence in our community, but often we don’t talk about the violence against women and children,” she added.

The District Attorney’s office is now prosecuting three cold cases in which sexual assault kits were tested after years of sitting in the backlog. With the new hires from the SAKI grant, they expect more charges to come and a new energy behind the process.

“I think everybody in Durham was surprised when they did the inventory,” Reiss said. “But things have changed.”

Deberry agreed. “Now we’re cleaning up what this system may have let sit for a while.”

A courthouse moment: ‘Tuck the sweatshirt!’

Phillip Williams might have seen the sign.

It was hanging off the door Williams used to enter Courtroom 4D. “Pull your pants up and tuck in your shirts,” it said in Comic Sans. “If you are not dressed appropriately your case WILL NOT BE HEARD…”

The sign outside Courtroom 4D.

If he saw the sign, he didn’t follow its rules. When his turn came to face District Court Judge Brian Wilks, Williams ambled to the center of the room, a pink sweatshirt hanging untucked on his lanky frame, boxers peeking over his jeans.

The bailiff took one look at Williams and heaved a long, loud sigh.

“Out,” he grumbled, gesturing for Williams to leave the courtroom, fix his appearance, and then return. Williams gave a half shrug, grabbing distractedly at his unfastened red belt and walking back into the hallway. 

When Williams strolled back in, he’d fulfilled half the requirements on the sign: the red belt was tighter around his waist, the boxers now safely tucked beneath jeans. “Straight?” he asked.

The bailiff wasn’t satisfied.

“OUT!” he shouted at Williams, directing him back into the hallway, eyes wide in disbelief. “Tuck the sweatshirt!” 

The courtroom erupted in giggles. Judge Wilks rested his head on his knuckles.

“Ahh,” Williams turned around for his second try, stumbling to the door of the courtroom as he shoved his pink sweatshirt into his jeans. He returned to the dias looking uncomfortable, a stray rumple of sweatshirt spilling over his belt.

The courtroom chuckles subsided as Judge Wilks leveled his gaze at Williams, who rocked from foot to foot, waiting for his scolding. 

“Man!” the judge suddenly exclaimed. “This is no fashion statement!”

Williams stopped rocking. 

“I guarantee you, if you see me not in this robe, off this bench, I won’t have my shirt tucked in!” the Judge joked. “Guarantee! ‘Cause it’s not cool!”

There came the wave of giggles again – muffled laughs into shirt collars, hearty guffaws from the back, and even a snort from Williams’ attorney. 

But the judge said there was a good reason for the rule on courtroom attire.

“The climate we live in these days… you never can tell what people got,” he said. “I’ve watched the safety video, and no lie – a gentleman as slim as you are, right? He had on a sweatshirt, and he pulled out about 19 guns and knives from around his waist. He even had a shotgun down his pants!”

At that image, two ladies in the front bursted into laughter, shoulder-to-shoulder in chuckles.

“See, if something pops off in this courtroom, I can dive behind my desk,” the Judge mimed bending over. “But that’s not gonna protect you all

“My job, and the deputies’ job, is to protect you. And to protect everybody that, unfortunately, has to come into this courtroom.

Back to business. “So,” he turned to look at Williams, “This is a motion to continue?”

Elsewhere in the courtroom, several other defendants waiting their turn before the judge quickly but quietly tucked in their shirts, sweatshirts and jackets.

A courthouse moment: ‘You have the rope’

“Hey! Where are you going?” The court bailiff throws his arm in front of Jaquomie Samuel, stopping him from reaching the courtroom’s most sacrosanct territory: the judge’s dias.

District Court Judge Brian C. Wilks, today’s occupant of that dias, waves the bailiff off. “No, no. I called him up here,” Wilks says. 

Judge Wilks – a genial, bespectacled man – beckons Samuel towards him. Samuel shuffles up to the judge’s dias alongside his attorney, tugging up a pair of dark jeans. 

I’ve been sitting in the courtroom for almost two hours when Samuel is called up to the dias. The steady rhythm of District Court is almost never broken – an attorney calls a name, a defendant walks to the middle of the room, an attorney motions for a continuance or a stay or something of the sort, the judge agrees. It’s all painfully predictable – until Judge Wilks calls up Samuel.

When Samuel arrives at the judge’s dias, the two men begin whispering like old friends. Judge Wilks – one hand covering his microphone – nods and holds Samuel’s gaze while he leans in, explaining something. The courtroom is quiet. Everyone – defendant, attorney, and clerk alike – is watching the unlikely duo. One so powerful, one so vulnerable.

Then, as if the moment in confidence never happened, Judge Wilks waves Samuel away. He grants his motion and calls up the next defendant in line. The routine of district court resumes.

Outside the courtroom, Jaquomie Samuel sits on a bench next to his girlfriend.

“Why did Judge Wilks call you up there?” I ask him. “I don’t see that happen very much.”

“I know,” Samuel says, smiling tightly. “But he was the one who gave me a second chance.”

“He was a judge in juvenile back when I got a charge,” he continues. “I don’t even remember what it was for, but I was 15, and I was scared. He gave me another chance. Most judges don’t care, but he cares.”

For Judge Wilks, caring is one of his judicial responsibilities. “It’s part of my job to try to make sure people don’t come back to see us in court,” Wilks says after the proceedings. “If I have a chance to do that, I will.” The judge would not comment on the specifics of his relationship with Samuel. 

But Samuel remembers what Judge Wilks said to him years ago in juvenile court. 

“Back then, he said, ‘you have the rope to hang yourself,’” Samuel recalls. “And he said, ‘if I see you back here in court, you hung yourself.’”

A Courthouse Moment: ‘This is my freedom on the line’

On any given Wednesday in District Court, Judge Amanda Maris settles into her high-backed chair and begins to read names.

“Todd Burgess,” she calls out on this particular Wednesday, September 4. And then “Dinelle Allen.” And then others. When Judge Maris finishes her list, 12 people have shuffled to the front of the courtroom, facing her in a slipshod line. Most are young, black, and male.

One by one, Judge Maris calls out a name and begins reciting her script.

“You’ve been charged with…” she addresses each one, filling in the blank with “larceny” or “misdemeanor assault” or something similar.

“This is a serious offense,” the judge continues. “What would you like to do about a lawyer?”

“Court-appointed lawyer,” the first defendant mutters. “Court-appointed,” says the next. Eleven times, I hear “Court-appointed, your Honor.”

But when the last of the 12 stands alone in front of Judge Maris, she surprises everyone in the courtroom.

“I’ll represent myself, thank you,” the young woman says.

She is Davionna Mack, a slender 21-year-old with a pair of red streaks in her dark hair and chunky gold earrings hanging down to her neck.

Mack is charged with injury to real property, a first-degree misdemeanor. If she’s found guilty, she could spend up to four months in jail. 

But representing herself is risky. “Are you sure you want to do this?” Judge Maris asks after hearing Mack’s decision, raising her eyebrows at the young woman. “That could be a problem if the victim comes to court.”

Mack knows that, and she isn’t contesting her guilt. “This girl I know came over to my car in the middle of the night and busted out my windows,” she tells me after her appearance. “So I went to her house and busted hers.”

But Mack also knows how the criminal justice system works. If she accepts a court-appointed lawyer and is found guilty, she’ll have to pay back all the money spent on her defense. That’s on top of the $173 in “General Court of Justice” fees she already owes to the court, just by appearing in front of Judge Maris.

So Mack will represent herself. If all goes well, she says, the woman whose windows she broke won’t show up to court. Then, her case will likely be dismissed. But if the woman does show up? 

“I’d still rather represent and speak for myself than to have an attorney speak for me,” Mack says.

Back in the courtroom, Judge Maris questions Mack one more time. “You’re sure this is what you want to do?”

“I want to represent myself,” Mack repeats. Judge Maris shrugs and waves the young woman out of court, to await the date she’ll take to the well and represent herself.

“I’m nervous,” Mack admits. “I want to speak for myself. But, you know, this is my freedom on the line.”