Rape Kit Tracking System: From Idea to Law

Today’s guest author is Texas State Representative Donna Howard, who has served in the Texas House since 2006, representing District 48 in Travis County. Here, Rep. Howard reflects on the effort to pass H.B. 281, which established a statewide tracking system for rape kits. She writes today’s blog to inspire legislators and advocates across the country.

As the State Representative for Texas House District 48, an important part of my responsibilities is to meet with constituents and discuss their priorities, concerns, and policy ideas. Sometimes these conversations will result in a telephone call to a state agency to clear up an administrative snafu. Or they may lead to my voting a particular way on a specific piece of legislation. Every now and then, however, a meeting with a constituent will be the genesis for a bill that I author and shepherd through the legislative process. This was the case for my House Bill 281, which was recently signed into law by the governor.

Last summer, I met with a sexual assault survivor who bravely shared with me her experience, detailing not just the assault but also the aftermath of the offense. Disappointingly, it was clear that the institutions designed to help her, from the initial reporting to the eventual closure of her case, had failed her in a variety of ways. But the issue that most frustrated her, and the reason she had reached out to me, was the lack of transparency around the evidence collected in her case. She was flummoxed by the inability to know where her “rape kit” was in the review process, and whether she could expect it to be processed within the next month or if it would take years. She wished there would be some type of online resource where she could easily log in and check the progress of her kit. Before the meeting had even concluded, I was fairly certain that I would be filing legislation to help address the matter.

I was familiar with the rage-inducing backlog of untested evidence kits throughout Texas. I had also voted in support of efforts to work through the backlog, and to better provide survivors with necessary information on their kits. In 2013, lawmakers, including myself, enacted S.B. 1192, which was led by State Senator Wendy Davis and entitled survivors of sexual assault with the right to receive status notifications as evidence moves through the process. It was disappointing to hear from my constituent that this right was being neither properly enforced nor executed. It was apparent that this breakdown in notification could lead to further traumatization of survivors, so I drafted a bill that would help streamline rape kit processing and bring about transparency.

By creating a secure and confidential electronic tracking system for rape kits that provides access to survivors on their own terms would give a small piece of control back to survivors.

As with any bill in the Texas State Capitol, crafting the language and moving it through the process was a team effort. My staff quickly discovered that the state of Washington had already moved to create a tracking system similar to what I had envisioned, and we used that as a model for our initial draft. We met with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA) about the idea, and Chris Kaiser, their Director of Public Policy and General Counsel, became our closest adviser. Shortly after the November filing of H.B. 281, my office was contacted by a number of stakeholders, advocates, and survivors, all of whom offered their assistance in moving the bill toward passage. These include the Joyful Heart Foundation, Travis County Assistant District Attorney Justin Wood, Jenny Jones and her staff at Texas A&M Health Science Center, Senator Wendy Davis and Deeds Not Words, and Dr. Peter Stout and Ramit Plushnick-Masti with the Houston Forensic Science Center. We also met with Chief Brian Manley and Commander Don Baker of the Austin Police Department, and Skylor Hearn at the Texas Department of Public Safety. These groups and individuals all played crucial roles in the success of the bill from securing support and ensuring the availability of witnesses with relevant testimony to establishing the proper definition of a sexual assault kit and clearing up any privacy or implementation concerns.

I am particularly grateful for the partnership of Senator Joan Huffman, who successfully guided H.B. 281 through the Texas Senate. She was the ideal champion for it in the East Chamber of the Texas Capitol.

From the beginning, we anticipated that the biggest obstacle for H.B. 281 would be the cost of implementing and maintaining the electronic tracking system, especially in a tight budget year. Our initial means of offsetting state expenses came through a clause in the bill to allow for private donations, grants, or other funds to be used in funding the tracking system; while this method might help secure initial funding, it would not necessarily guarantee sustained funding for the system. To avoid this becoming yet another good idea with no funding for implementation, I worked with a fellow member of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, to fully fund the creation and annual costs of the tracking system with $1,465,761. That effort was successful, and this funding for the tracking system is in the final state budget.

The governor signed H.B. 281 into law on June 15, and it goes into effect on September 1 of this year. I am pleased to report that there were additional successes on the rape kit front this session, including an appropriation of $4.2 million to fund the testing of all backlogged sexual assault evidence kits statewide and a bill to allow voluntary donations upon the renewal of a driver's license to go toward a rape kit testing fund.

Despite these advances, however, it is clear that advocacy and work on sexual assault awareness and prevention is far from over. For instance, it was recently reported that 850 untested rape kits being stored by the Austin Police Department were found to have mold growing on the outside of them; it is currently unclear as to whether the kits themselves have been compromised and if the evidence will be usable. It is vital that Texas continues to innovate and improve how we prevent and respond to matters of sexual assault and protect survivors of these heinous crimes. I will continue working with advocates, stakeholders, and survivors on the issue, and I hope you will too. The next big idea that you have might just see its way into law.

-By Representative Donna Howard, July 19, 2017

END THE BACKLOG is an initiative of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.

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END THE BACKLOG is a JOYFUL HEART FOUNDATION initiative and a proud supporter of