Lighting the way for survivors

Photo of Angela PovilaitisAttorney 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."

7 questions with Angela Povilaitis

Q: Aside from the well-publicized cases you've prosecuted like the Larry Nasser case, is there a particular case that stays in your mind, either as a triumph of justice or as an instance when you wish more could have been done?

A: There is one prior case that I think of every day, and that continues to motivate my work on behalf of all victims. I prosecuted a serial rapist case in Kalamazoo County. The defendant was a truck driver. It was the first case we were able to put together in the attorney general's office cold-case sexual assault project. We linked the defendant to 11 rapes spanning four states and 25 years, mostly through DNA evidence from sexual assault evidence collection kits (commonly known as rape kits).

It took over five years of investigation, and journeys up and down the Court of Appeals to bring the case to trial. Unfortunately, the jury was only allowed to hear from three of his victims, all of whom were women from underprivileged and marginalized communities. They came from around the country to testify about the rapes eight, nine and 10 years earlier. Despite throwing everything into that case and having it go in at trial as good as it possibly could, the jury acquitted the defendant in September 2017. It was not only a devastating result for me professionally and personally, but - more importantly - it absolutely devastated the victims in the case.

Shortly over a month after the verdict, our main victim died of an accidental overdose. The investigator and I had gotten to know her and her family very well, and walked with her through the justice system for over four years. I think of her every single day. She and her experience motivate me to continue to raise awareness about sexual assault and to fight in any way I can for all victims.

Q: What, in your opinion, causes someone to become a sexual abuser or predator? How do we prevent that?

A: This question is way outside my area of expertise. I think we need to understand that predators need opportunities to abuse and will try to continue to get away with it. In both child and adult sexual abuse cases, most perpetrators are known to the victim. There's a myth that these are strangers jumping out of the bushes attacking other strangers. Those cases do happen, but the majority of cases aren't those. They involve a coach or teacher or family member, or in adult cases, often an acquaintance or non-stranger of the victim. Those perpetrators are able to hide among us and often appear to be "good guys."

In addition to Larry Nassar, I've prosecuted cases against clergy members, police officers, foster parents and many, many step-parents or relatives.

We need to educate children that anyone can be an abuser and that it's OK and safe to disclose, that they will be believed and won't be blamed if they do disclose. We need to continue to empower both women and men - statistics show that 1 in 6 men will be victims of sexual abuse in their lifetimes - to come forward. We need to expose abuse and shed light on it regardless of where it happens in our society or who the perpetrator is.

Q: Why did you decide to study law in the first place and why did you choose Wayne Law?

A: My parents would tell you that I always liked to argue or have the last word growing up. I grew up in the small town of Baldwin in northern Michigan, and was the first in my family to go to college. We had one judge (51st Circuit Judge Mark Wickens, Wayne Law class of 1979), who is married to my mom's cousin, and one prosecutor in our town, and I knew that lawyers could make a difference and help people. As an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, I was a political science major and loved politics.

The summer before my senior year, I was an intern for former U.S. Sen. Carl Levin (now distinguished legislator in residence and chair of the Levin Center at Wayne Law) in Washington, D.C., and really thought about whether law school or working in politics was the right next step for me. Clearly, law school won, and I think it was the right choice. I knew a legal education would open up many doors and opportunities.

I applied to and was accepted at a number of law schools, but chose Wayne State. I knew I wanted to stay in Michigan after graduation and attending a school in Detroit after growing up in such a small town was exciting to me. I thought it had an excellent reputation, excellent bar passage rate and top-notch professors and programs.

Q: What advice can you offer beginning law students who hope to follow in your footsteps?

A: I strongly encourage every law student who has even the slightest interest to explore prosecution as a career. Society needs to continue to have fair prosecutors who will not only fight for victims but will fight for justice and do what is right. I would also encourage students to pursue opportunities to prosecute sexual assault, abuse and intimate-partner or family violence cases. I truly believe they are the most important and most challenging cases in our justice system.

With good and committed sex crimes prosecutors, victims can feel believed, supported and can begin their healing.

I encourage all students to seek out clinics, internships and other employment opportunities that are diverse and expose them to different areas of the law. Look for mentors within the law school. I still call on Peter Henning, my criminal law and professional responsibility professor, for advice. I'd also recommend getting involved in activities like the Student Trial Advocacy Program or Moot Court where you can practice arguing and thinking on your feet.

Q: Who are some of your role models and why?

A: My biggest role model was my mom. She's incredibly smart and hard-working and selfless, giving back so much to her community. Both of my parents, but especially my mom, instilled in me and my sister the belief that we could do and be anything if we worked hard.

Professionally, I have had the opportunity to work with and for so many trailblazing and fierce women prosecutors and advocates who have also worked on sexual assault and abuse cases, including Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy; Debi Cain, executive director of the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board; and Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Lora Weingarden (Wayne Law class of 1985).These women have all devoted their careers to working with and for victims, fighting for justice and are tireless in their work.

My former boss, Donna Pendergast, a 1987 Wayne Law graduate, is also a trailblazing role model, as she is arguably the best homicide prosecutor in the country and set an example to work tirelessly on behalf of victims.

Personally, many of the victims I've worked with are also my role models, particularly Rachael Denhollander, the first Nassar survivor to come forward and be publicly identified, and who became the leader of the survivors; and Kyle Stephens, another survivor whose road to justice was not an easy one, yet she walked it with grace and courage and determination. I worked with many men in a priest case a few years ago - many who risked so much by reporting their abuse decades later. They also inspire me to always fight and do what is right.

I would also consider U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg a role model. I am inspired by how she has devoted her career to furthering the advancement of women and gender-equality issues. She and so many women lawyers who came before me have paved the way for our success and opportunity. I hope my generation of women lawyers will continue to mentor, encourage, support and cheer on the next generation of women lawyer leaders.

Q: If not law, what career might interest you?

A: As I look back, I think the one area that I might have been interested in pursuing is journalism, especially investigative journalism. I think there are many similarities between prosecution and investigative journalism. Both fields attempt to pursue, find and expose the truth, regardless of who or what is affected by that truth. Both careers attempt to make society safer by shedding light on dark areas and holding people who abuse power or positions of authority accountable.

It is so important for society to have good and fair prosecutors and also to have tenacious and thorough investigative journalists. Without both, I know the Nassar case would not have become what it did.

Q: What was your first job?

A: My first job, besides babysitting, was scooping ice cream at Jones Homemade Ice Cream Parlor in Baldwin. They make the best ice cream in the country.

Download a high-resolution photo of Angela Povilaitis by Jacob Lewkow

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