Victims, advocates plead with city leaders to resolve rape kit backlog

One year and 22 days.

That’s how long a 20-year-old University of Texas student’s rape kit has been sitting in storage, waiting to be tested, she told Austin City Council members Thursday.

She described growing up in a small town, never feeling like she fit in, and falling in love with the spirit of Austin as she started at UT three years ago. She had found her home. Until she was attacked.

“My sense of safety and security were ripped away from me as a man slammed my head against a parking garage wall and proceeded to rape me,” said the woman, whom the American-Statesman isn’t identifying because she is a victim of sexual assault.

Now her case is on hold as the forensic evidence collected that night waits, with thousands of other cases, to eventually be tested. So, it’s been one year and 22 days of panic attacks during the student’s five-minute walk to class, fearing she could run into her attacker.

She was part of a group of sexual assault victims and advocates who sat through hours of hearings on the city’s 2017 budget to emphasize the importance of DNA evidence in prosecuting sexual assaults and to plead with city leaders to resolve the testing backlog. The council will decide later this month whether to include the money to do so.

“Me and every other survivor in that backlog — we deserve our city back,” the student said. “I wake up every morning and think ‘Today’s going to be the day that I get a call from my detective.’”

Two backlogs

The Austin police forensic lab closed in May to update its protocols and training. The earliest it is expected to reopen is February. Meanwhile, cases are being sent to the Department of Public Safety. Those that are considered a high priority to public safety, such as a suspected serial rapist or the slaying of UT student Haruka Weiser, go to the top of the list, said Austin police Cmdr. Nick Wright.

Meanwhile, the backlog of cases continues to grow.

The city received a grant to send about 3,000 untested rape kits to a lab in California — including some dating back decades, which police had decided for various reasons not to test — after a new federal law ordered all kits to be tested. Those are being dispatched in monthly batches, and they will be all sent within 18 months, Wright said.

Evidence from an additional 1,400 cases, about half involving sexual assaults, sits in a second backlogged group. Those items aren’t rape kits with evidence taken directly from a victim’s body, but items such as clothing or sheets that could have DNA, Wright said.

Before the Austin police lab closed, it had four analysts processing about 40 cases per month, but it received about 95 cases per month.

Forensic examiners at SAFE Alliance in Austin perform 50 to 60 sexual assault exams per month, including 12 just last weekend, said representatives of the organization.

A long wait

Those advocates urged the council to pass budget amendments from Council Members Greg Casar and Leslie Pool to add eight employees to the police forensic lab and enough funding to process 500 rape kits with a private lab. Both measures are competing against dozens of other proposed council amendments to a budget already maxed out on revenue.

The two amendments would cost a combined $1.9 million. Even if both measures passed, it would still take about four years to work through the current backlog.

When a victim reports a sexual assault, the process of collecting evidence is an invasive three- to five-hour process, said Paula Marks, a sexual assault forensic examiner with SAFE Alliance. She must examine their bodies thoroughly, take photos of injuries and ask detailed and traumatic questions about the assault and prior sexual activity.

But one of the hardest moments for Marks is when the question inevitably arises: When will I get my results?

“They are told the exam will help them see justice for their case and prevent future assaults,” Marks said. “How do you think they feel when I tell them the truth? That it will probably take two years, maybe more.”

Stopping serial rapists

In addition to the impact on victims awaiting information from their own cases, the backlog hurts efforts to curb future rapes, advocates said. When scientists tested thousands of backlogged rape kits in Ohio, for instance, they found more than half of the cases involved repeat offenders.

Kelly White, CEO of SAFE Alliance, recounted the story of a college student who was a victim of date rape and was found wandering the streets wearing only a sheet, with no memory of what had occurred. Her kit is still untested, more than a year and a half later.

“There’s not one of us who thinks this guy has only raped once — he knew what he was doing,” White said. “Someone else has been raped.”

Andrea Ricaurte, a volunteer first responder with SAFE, said one reason so few victims report sexual assaults is because there’s often no action taken.

“I am on call tonight,” Ricaurte said. “If I get dispatched to help a survivor go through this process, I pray to God she won’t ask me how long it will take to get that kit processed.”

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