Sexual assault survivors demand council reopen DNA labWritten by Antwon R. Martin
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.
Last night, the people of Austin made their voices heard. Austin City Council listened to testimony from sexual assault survivors, advocates for change, and members of the community as they demanded the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab be reopened and the city’s backlog of untested rape kits be examined.
Standing behind each speaker, members of The SAFE Alliance held signs with the hashtags #ENDTHEBACKLOG and #KeepAustinSAFE.
“Our nurses and advocates do this work because they believe in providing compassionate care and justice for the survivors of sexual assault.”
SAFE CEO Kelly White was among the speakers. She told the council and the packed chamber about the old backlog of about 3,000 rape kits sitting on a shelf and the 1,400 current cases waiting to be tested, 700 of which are sexual assault kits.
“That backlog is continuing to grow every single day,” White said. She added that undergoing a forensic exam after being sexually assaulted is a four-hour process that is a “very invasive and trying experience.”
“This last weekend, we saw 12,” White said. “Twelve survivors came to Eloise House for forensic exams and there was one who could not 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.”
The speakers all had the same message for council members: find the funds to address the backlog of rape kits. The conversation surrounded budget amendments PS1.04 and PS1.07. Originally presented by Council Member Greg Casar, PS1.04 would provide $1.4 million for seven additional full-time DNA analysts and one supervisor at the APD crime lab and PS1.07 would allocate $500,000 for outsourcing the analysis of 500 rape kits.
“I am ashamed to tell an already traumatized person who came to us, looking for assistance through this awful chapter of their life, that we realistically have no idea when they will get their results back.”
We at SAFE believe these measures are critical to providing justice to survivors of sexual assault and to achieving our vision of a just, safe community free from violence and abuse.
The good news – if such a thing exists in this case – is that you can still lend a hand. SAFE is taking signatures to let Austin’s council members know just how devastating the backlog of rape kits is. For way to contact your council member directly, click here. Council will revisit the amendments during budget readings scheduled Sept. 12, 13, and 14.
As SAFE sexual assault nurse examiner Paula Marks said last night, she is ashamed to tell survivors it will take at least two years for their rape kits to be examined. It could be four years or longer at the current rate.
“I am ashamed to tell an already traumatized person who came to us, looking for assistance through this awful chapter of their life, that we realistically have no idea when they will get their results back,” Marks said. “That they may never see justice because far too often, the legal system cannot perform the necessary prosecutions without the analysis of this evidence we are tasked with collecting.”
Letting rape kits sit on the shelves sends a message that survivors of sexual assault are not a priority.
In a state that sees less than 10 percent of survivors report being sexually assaulted, it will take every effort to convince victims to come forward. Knowing that thousands of rape kits are untested in Austin, how can anyone expect survivors to feel the horrific act of violence they experienced was a priority?
Ana DeFrates serves on the Austin Commission for Women. She told council members San Antonio has a far superior method of handling rape kits.
“They have a turnaround of 44 days for evidence to be processed,” DeFrates said. “And they have 26 staff people at their DNA lab.”
She continued by imploring council members, along with APD, to do their part.
It’s still too soon to tell how the vote will go, but at least one council member was touched by the heartbreaking testimonies. Greg Casar reaffirmed his stance that he is committed to eliminating the backlog.