Lighting the way for survivors
Attorney Angela Povilaitis is proud to be a voice for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse.
A 2000 graduate of Wayne State University Law School, she recently began working as one of three attorneys with the governor-appointed Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Treatment and Prevention Board and Division of Victim Services within the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services.
For six years before taking the new job, she was a senior attorney in the state attorney general’s Criminal Division, and lead prosecutor on multi-victim domestic violence, stalking and sexual assault cases. For 12 years before that, she was an assistant prosecuting attorney for Wayne County, working on cases of child abuse, child and adult sexual assault, child homicide and other felony cases.
Povilaitis gained worldwide attention as lead prosecutor in the case against former USA Gymnastics physician Larry Nassar, who was convicted in January 2018 of sexually assaulting numerous young girls.
Povilaitis was instrumental in arranging for 156 of Nassar’s victims to give impact statements to the court during his sentencing hearing, while the world watched. Allowing them to do that was important to her — because it was very important to them, she said.
“One of the most amazing things to witness in the Nassar case and at the sentencing hearing was to see the transformation from victim to survivor, and to witness that empowerment that happened through a combination of feeling supported by police and prosecutors and other survivors, and feeling believed and supported by society,” Povilaitis said. “When victims decided to shed their anonymity and be publicly identified, they also shed their shame and put it where it belonged — on the defendant.”
It is crucial that we as a society start believing victims of sexual assault, especially women, she added.
“In all cases, we must continue to support survivors, believe them, provide necessary community and court-based victim advocacy and counseling services, and devote community resources to our police and prosecutors so they can be specially trained in these best practices,” Povilaitis said.
Researching and developing those “best practices” and training policy makers, those who work in the criminal justice system and others in how to carry out those practices is part of her new job.
“It’s been a learning curve to move from prosecution to the policy arena, but one in which I believe will bring about greater opportunities to help many, many victims,” Povilaitis said. “The training opportunities, I believe, will also have the ripple effect of positively influencing the results of many cases. Our focus is always on improving access to justice for victims by helping them achieve better outcomes.”
That is not to say the due process rights of defendants shouldn’t be protected, or that police shouldn’t thoroughly and fairly investigate reports of sexual assault, she added.
“They must,” Povilaitis said. “But they can do so and avoid re-traumatizing victims if they incorporate many of the best practices in the field, including being victim-centered, offender-focused and trauma-informed.”
Victims of sexual assault often are treated differently than victims of other crimes, she said.
“Reports are often met with skepticism, or victims are blamed for their own abuse or assault,” Povilaitis said. “The larger societal myths about how a victim should behave or react after being assaulted seeps into the justice system, including with judges and juries.
“Law enforcement and others in the justice system need to be better informed about the impact of trauma on victims, the impact trauma can have on memory, why victims usually delay disclosing their abuse or assaults, and offender dynamics such as exploiting vulnerable victims or practicing grooming behaviors to obtain a victim’s trust.”
When she started law school, Povilaitis was considering specializing in environmental law, and also was exploring other types of practice. But Wayne Law Professor Peter Henning’s classes on criminal procedure honed her interest in prosecution, she said.
“In my third year, I began an internship at the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office in their Child and Family Abuse Unit under the supervision of former Assistant Prosecutor Nancy Diehl (a 1978 Wayne Law alumna). From that day forward, I knew I wanted to be a prosecutor and one that focused on abuse and assault cases,” Povilaitis said.
“I saw the work done day in and day out by the assistant prosecutors. It was fast-paced work, literally ripped from the headline cases, that truly impacted the lives of the victims involved. I also enjoyed working with the victims, especially children and young adults. I was in awe of their resiliency and strength after having experienced the worst crimes imaginable.”
Eighteen years of working as a prosecutor on those cases has had an impact on her.
“It takes an emotional, mental and physical toll on me,” Povilaitis said. “I think any professional, whether it’s a prosecutor, police officer or advocate, to do their job well, must have empathy and compassion. Doing our job compassionately means we will be exposed to awful things that can weigh on us.
“What I learned early in my career when prosecuting domestic violence and horrific child abuse cases was that I had to find a way to shut it off and ways to care for myself.”
She recommends counseling and therapy for professionals just as much as she recommends it for victims, and finds respite for herself by spending time with family and friends and by exercising.
“But I also am grateful that I am the one who could build and prosecute those horrific cases,” Povilaitis said. “It is rewarding to be able to be the voice for victims; to bring comfort to families in their time of need; and to use my education, opportunities and talents to help the most vulnerable victims.
“I am also grateful that I can help raise awareness on issues such as sexual assault and domestic violence, that are often hidden, and where victims often feel they must stay silent. I truly believe that by shedding light on these hidden crimes, we can not only help victims obtain justice, but also empower other survivors to shed any shame they may feel and realize they are not alone and that they are people who care.”