HIV advocacy groups call for investigation into handling of Michigan criminal case
The results of a weeks-long investigation of a criminal case in Grand Rapids, Mich., involving the state’s HIV disclosure law has resulted in state advocacy groups and public health experts calling for state health officials to investigate the case.
The American Independent’s reporting led Josh Moore, a prominent attorney in HIV law, to opine that either the public health system had suffered a “catastrophic failure” or the accused “is not HIV-positive.”
“Absolutely it is vital we identify where the system failed,” said Nicole Seguin of the Positive Women’s Network of Michigan. “Most of our federal funding is contingent on how well we identify positive individuals and link them into care. This whole situation could have been avoided if the person had received care, counseling, and referrals to needed mental health and substance abuse issues. The sooner we can identify the gaps in care and correct them brings us closer to the end of the spread of HIV. This isn’t the only case where the system failed. The state is conducting fetal infant mortality surveys amongst HIV-positive women because there have been many missed opportunities. We need to find out what went wrong here and take corrective action in order to prevent unecessary transmission.”
The man was charged in December with two counts of violating the state’s HIV disclosure law. The law, known as AIDS — Sexual Penetration with Uninformed Partner — makes it a four-year felony for a person who knows that they are infected with HIV to engage in sexual penetration “however slight” without first disclosing that infection. Michigan does not criminalize needle-sharing without disclosure.
The case arose when the 51-year-old Comstock Park man allegedly walked into the Grand Rapids Police Department and said he has attempted to infect hundreds of people with HIV through sex and needle-sharing. Police charged the man on Dec. 24 with his first charge, and on Dec. 27 hit him with a second charge. The man is currently undergoing psychiatric evaluation to see if he is mentally fit to stand trial on the charges.
After news broke of the case, the media frenzied and developed what activists called “sensationalist” reports on the case.
And Seguin is not alone.
“Yes, the findings of this investigation do indicate a significant need of the state to investigate this case and to find out exactly what has happened,” said Steve Alsum, executive director of Red Project in Grand Rapids, an HIV-prevention group working with intravenous drug users in the area. ”This investigation has highlighted what may have been failings of our overburdened public health system. … We must invest our public funds in interventions that have been scientifically shown to prevent the spread of HIV and to help those living with HIV to live longer, healthier lives.”
Alsum said this story has also shined a light on HIV-criminalization in the state in general.
“This investigation has also highlighted a significant flaw in our legal system, and offers an opportunity for public debate on how to fix it, ” he said. “We must not criminalize certain health conditions, and our laws must be relevant to the times we live in. Childhood obesity is epidemic in Michigan right now, and is a huge cost to our public health care system. Should we incarcerate parents of children who are obese? We must adjust our HIV laws to the times we live in, and not have stigma and discrimination written into our legal code. … Either criminalize all activities related to exposure to health conditions, or decriminalize them all. Stigma and fear regarding HIV, sexual practices and drug use should not guide our legal process.”
“MDCH is in close contact with Kent County and we will no longer be responding to requests regarding their investigation [of the Comstock Park man],” said Angela Minicuci, spokesperson for the Michigan Department of Community Health.
University of Michigan Ph.D. candidate Trevor Hoppe is working on a dissertation exploring the effectiveness of Michigan’s disclosure law and parallel civil law, Health Threat to Others. He slammed not only the criminal case itself, but also called for an investigation into HIV disclosure in Michigan.
“This individual seems to have a long history of mental illness, which is the kind of information you would want to know before sounding the alarm to the media that a local man may have infected ‘thousands’ of women, Hoppe said. “It’s unconscionable – and yet altogether uncommon, sadly – for officials to send the public into a panic before knowing all the facts and investigating the case thoroughly. Unfortunately, my research into how local officials respond to these cases across Michigan reveals that this problem is widespread throughout the state: There is no clear and consistent policy statewide for handling these cases. Without such guidance, many local officials are simply unprepared to effectively manage these cases. That kind of systematic unpreparedness has all kinds of nasty effects, but is particularly blameworthy because it creates a perfectly conducive environment for HIV stigma and misinformation to spread.
“Actually I think any investigation ought not to be not just about how this particular case was handled, which is of course atrocious, but more systematic in its approach,” he continued. “We need to rethink our approach to HIV disclosure cases in Michigan. It’s clear there is a problem, that it is pervasive, and that there is an opportunity for policymakers at the local and state level to help rectify that problem.”