SAFE CEO Kelly White addresses Austin Council

Written by Kelly White

UPDATE: On Sept. 12, Chief Acevedo announced that he would find funding within the existing fiscal year’s budget to fund the analysis of the current backlogged sexual assault related cases—and any incurred during the closure of APD’s DNA lab—while the lab remains closed.

On Sept. 14,  the Austin City Council passed the 2017 budget, which included $1.4 million in the general fund intended to pay for seven additional analysts and one additional supervisor, per PS1.04. 

This is a huge win for survivors of sexual assault and for the advocates and citizens who fought to get these funds in the budget. Your advocacy and your support for The SAFE Alliance is a critical part of this victory. You can help us continue to fight for justice for survivors of sexual assault by making a gift today.

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The SAFE Alliance CEO Kelly White joined numerous speakers at the Sept. 1 Austin City Council meeting to demand council members take action to reopen the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab. City budget amendments PS1.04 and PS1.07 would fund the hiring of properly trained DNA lab staff and help reduce Austin’s ever-growing backlog of rape kits.

There is still time for your voice to be heard. Council members will be voting on the city budget Sept. 12, 13, and 14. Just click the button bellow to sign SAFE’s petition in support of amendments PS1.04 and PS1.07.

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A transcript of her speech:

Good afternoon. My name is Kelly White, and I live in council district 9. I am the CEO of The SAFE Alliance, the primary organization providing sexual assault and exploitation, child abuse and domestic violence prevention and intervention services in our community. Our founding partners are Austin Children’s Shelter and SafePlace.

We operate Eloise House, the Forensic Nursing and Advocacy Program here in Austin. Through this program we conduct forensic exams and provide immediate advocacy and support for teen and adult survivors in the immediate aftermath of a sexual assault.

I’m here with a simple message for the council: When several-thousand sexual assault kits sit in a backlog at the DNA lab, it is unconscionable that we would even consider passing the city budget without amendments PS1.04 and PS1.07. 

Yes, our city is participating in a major grant that will help to clear some of the backlog but, in the meantime, the backlog is growing every day.

You have heard from forensic nurses about the fantastic work they do. But, as you heard, a forensic exam after a sexual assault is an invasive and trying experience. It’s difficult for survivors and nurses. Each exam takes about four hours, and it’s not unheard of for us to see a dozen survivors in a single weekend. We saw 12 this past weekend alone, not counting one who couldn’t get the exam because her physical injuries were so severe.

Our nurses and advocates do this work because they believe in providing compassionate care and justice for the survivors of sexual assault.  I believe our city administration, council and citizens hold this same belief.

“It’s our nurses’ job to conduct a thorough, professional, and compassionate exam for a survivor. Its APD’s job to have the kit properly tested. And it’s the city council’s job to find funds in the budget to get these kits tested in a timely, professional manner.”

Our nurses and advocates know that collecting and properly processing evidence, is an essential step in securing justice for the survivors of sexual assault.  Everyone in this process has a job to do. It’s our nurses’ job to conduct a thorough, professional, and compassionate exam for a survivor. Its APD’s job to have the kit properly tested. And it’s the city council’s job to find funds in the budget to get these kits tested in a timely, professional manner.

Amendment PS1.04 would peovide resources to secure seven additional analysts and one supervisor, consistent with the recommendations of a recent audit of the lab.

PS1.07 would provide funds for the immediate outsourcing of 500 kits to get a jumpstart on reducing the backlog. That backlog currently includes 3,000 rape kits awaiting testing as part of the “old” backlog – pre-2014, and 1,400 current untested DNA samples. That backlog grows by the day, and these amendments are the bare minimum needed to get the lab properly staffed and the testing process adequately functioning.

Even with these resources, including the grant to clear the oldest backlog, estimates are that it will take four years for the DNA lab to process all of the kits now sitting on a shelf. Without these resources, the delays in providing justice to survivors of sexual assault could be much, much longer.  SAFE’s program provided support and exams for 304 sexual assault survivors in the first six months of this calendar year. So, while we battle over funding, the backlog continues to grow.

Research and our experience tell us a few things about sexual assault:

  • We know the majority of sexual assaults, 70% of those reported, are perpetrated by an acquaintance, family or figure of authority. Given the victim profile, it’s unlikely that more police officers on the streets would make a difference in this critical public safety issue.
  • A 2015 prevalence study for Texas found that only 9.2 % of sexual assault survivors even reported their experience to the police.
  • And, too many offenders, sans intervention, go on to reoffend. In other jurisdictions where they have cleared up rape kit backlogs, 50% of the samples matched a perpetrator who was linked to another crime since the rape kit was collected and shelved.

Think about what all of this means about our ability to hold rapists accountable for their actions. Quite simply – we don’t.

Because of my position with SAFE, I can tell way too many horror stories about what a survivor experiences after a sexual assault, but I will limit myself to one: I have a close relationship with a young woman who was raped with the use of a date rape drug prior to SAFE’s opening of Eloise House. A levelheaded young woman, she was found incoherent wandering the streets in the early morning hours, wrapped only in a sheet – no memory of what had occurred. I personally sent her to the hospital emergency room for an exam. She chose not to file a report at that time, so she subsequently received an unexpected hospital bill, further traumatizing a young woman that was putting herself through college. The last time someone checked, her kit had not been tested. And – given the way the rape unfolded – no one doubts that it wasn’t the first or last time that this predator raped someone. Someone that could be you, your daughter, niece, neighbor or friend.

“We have a system that has allowed an open season for sexual predators and it is an abomination.

The fact that it’s likely many rapists could be taken off the streets before raping again is never far from my mind, and it should stay in yours as you consider these amendments. We hear from countless survivors that the way the criminal justice system treats them is even more traumatizing than being raped.

One last note: we heard from several supporters that, in their meetings with their council members, many of you acknowledge that this should be a priority but – “it’s a tight budget year”.  I don’t envy any of you trying to balance a budget with so many competing priorities. Why this priority over another? Because it’s the City’s job to protect its citizens from sexual predators.

Clearly, our systems and our city aren’t doing what needs to be done to prevent and intervene in sexual assault cases. We have a system that has allowed an open season for sexual predators and it is an abomination.

You must pass these amendments. We ask a lot of a survivor when we ask them to submit to a forensic exam. We need to be able to look them in the eye and tell them that it’s worth it.