SAFEkit™ puts science to work for sexual assault survivors

Jun 6, 2018 | Client Stories

“It’s their body — now they can own their evidence.” — Valerie Blackmore, Wyndham Forensic Group

A Guelph-based forensic laboratory has introduced a new private testing service that provides sexual assault survivors with information and options that didn’t exist before. Wyndham Forensic Group’s sexual assault evidence kit — the SAFEkit™ — provides biochemical and molecular testing and analysis to detect and identify foreign bodily fluids and DNA. The goal is to give clients the facts they need to make informed choices and support their recovery. “Many people who report to a hospital believing that they’ve been sexually assaulted are reluctant to consent to an official forensic exam and involve the authorities, for a variety of personal reasons,” says Valerie Blackmore, president and co-founder of Wyndham Forensic Group.  “But many also want answers for their own peace of mind. SAFEkit™ provides confidential access to the same scientific information that would be used by police investigators in a court case. They don’t have to do anything with that information — at least, not right away. “But by collecting the evidence immediately and in the right way, they keep their options open. It’s their body — now they can own their evidence. And they can decide for themselves whether to report the assault to police, or launch a case in civil court, or do nothing at all.” SAFEkit™ is designed for use by medical staff to ensure that all sample collection, handling and testing follows a documented chain of custody. This allows the results to be used in court. SAFEkit™ can be used on its own or in addition to the official evidence kit used by police. Established in 2009, Wyndham Forensic group provides accredited, comprehensive forensic DNA testing and consulting services to law enforcement agencies, defence lawyers and prosecutors, governments and non-governmental organizations, and individuals. Services include: forensic biology/ DNA testing and analysis for criminal casework; crime scene consultations; expert testimony; prepping legal teams for examining and cross-examining expert witnesses; paternity testing; DNA testing for immigration; consulting and customized training for police agencies and forensic teams across Canada and internationally. Since becoming a Fuel Injection client in 2016, Wyndham Forensic Group has worked with Innovation Guelph mentors on several initiatives aimed at growing the business and introducing new products and services. In 2017, the company’s forensic scientists developed SAFEkit™ in response to public frustration with the way the justice system handles sexual assault cases. Those feelings were brought to the forefront recently with a number of high-profile court cases and a series of articles last year in the The Globe and Mail newspaper about the disturbing number of complaints that are deemed “unfounded” by police and don’t ever proceed to prosecution. To support the rollout of the SAFEkit™ service, Wyndham Forensic Group engaged with Innovation Guelph mentors and industry specialists through the Fast Lane program. Fast Lane provides matching funds for projects to help companies identify challenges or barriers to growth and develop strategies to overcome them. This process informed development of a marketing communications plan that included naming and branding the SAFEkit™ product, the design and production of marketing materials for print and the web, and a rollout strategy to launch SAFEkit™ at sexual assault treatment centres across Ontario and nationally. “The guidance we’ve received from Innovation Guelph in developing the business case for SAFEkit™ has been invaluable,” says Blackmore. “Clearly, there is a demand for this type of service, but it’s a sensitive and complicated issue.” The crux of the issue with the traditional approach to handling sexual assault cases is that once the criminal justice system gets rolling, survivors have no control over what happens next. They are, in effect, merely one witness in a complex legal process.  However, the criminal process is not necessarily the only avenue for sexual assault victims, says Cecilia Hageman, also a scientist at Wyndham Forensic Group. “SAFEKit™ results may provide people with reliable evidence to take to civil and adjudicative tribunals,” says Hageman. “As scientists who are often involved in these cases, we’re not against the system,” adds Blackmore. “We just want to ensure that people who believe they’ve been assaulted have access to reliable information to help them decide what’s best for them.”