Survivors' Voices Drive Rape Kit Reform in Texas

Today’s guest author is Wendy Davis, former Texas state senator and founder of the advocacy organization Deeds Not Words. Here, she discusses the rape kit reform laws she sponsored in the Senate and addresses the need for survivors’ voices to drive policy solutions.

I first started working on the issue of sexual violence in 2009 while serving in the Texas Senate. A representative from the state’s forensic lab came to my office, sat down with my staff, and laid out their belief that we had a significant number of untested rape kits sitting in law enforcement evidence rooms across our state. At this point, Illinois had already started the same self-analysis and had exposed an alarming problem—thousands of untested kits on evidence room shelves.

The First Step: Counting Kits

I started by working with survivors and stakeholders to pass a law requiring law enforcement agencies throughout the state to conduct an inventory of their untested kits. This should be easy, I thought. It’s simply a matter of counting them, and we aren’t asking that they be tested at this point, so no funding will be needed—or so my logic went.

Boy, was I wrong. To my surprise, several law enforcement agencies began to push back behind the scenes (rather than coming to committee hearings to publicly oppose the bill). How dare someone tell them what they needed to do with their evidence? If they had untested kits, their argument went, they had them because they had made the judgment call not to test the kits, believing testing them would not yield anything helpful to a criminal investigation.

We pushed back hard with the help of jurisdictions like Fort Worth, Dallas, and Houston, where leaders understood we had a problem and wanted to be part of the solution. Ultimately, we were successful in passing the audit requirement, making Texas the second state to conduct such an analysis.

We were not prepared for the result. We discovered almost 20,000 untested kits—the highest number uncovered in any state to this day—collecting dust on shelves throughout Texas. This number is still not complete because—believe it or not—there are still jurisdictions that have not reported their numbers.

Understanding the Impact: Testing Kits and Funding Reform

Following the inventory, we knew that approximately 20,000 untested rape kits sat on shelves. What next?

Around this time, I heard the story of Lavinia Masters, who was raped by a stranger in her home when she was only 13. After filing a police report, Lavinia was taken to a hospital and subjected to the hours-long, invasive process of collecting DNA evidence left behind by the attacker. Lavinia and her family were never told what happened to her kit. Two decades later, Lavinia saw a news story about the backlog, and wondered, was my kit ever even tested? After waiting for months while police searched for the missing kit, forensic technicians analyzed it, developed a DNA profile, and ran it through the national database. Lavinia’s rapist was finally identified. He was already in prison for other crimes and no longer eligible for prosecution for her rape. The statute of limitations had run out.

Lavinia’s story was a wake-up call for me. The backlog wasn’t just a number. It wasn’t just a matter of thousands of boxes sitting on shelves. It was a matter of thousands of real people—survivors—who had never received the justice they deserved.

It was also a matter of wrongful convictions secured through incomplete investigations. It was the story of Johnny Pinchback, who was in his 20s when he was accused of two rapes he didn't commit. He was sentenced to 99 years in prison, and spent 27 years behind bars, before being exonerated when the state began testing backlogged rape kits.

These stories launched me on a journey, working alongside wonderful, committed advocates from the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA), Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANEs), law enforcement leaders, and local elected officials on reform.

In 2011, we passed a law requiring that all kits collected from that point in time be submitted to the lab for testing within 30 days. In 2013, we successfully set aside $11 million in the state budget to help test the backlogged kits. We were also successful in securing $5 million in grants awarded to law enforcement jurisdictions in Dallas, Houston, and Austin to address their own backlogs.

We were finally going to address the backlog and ensure that this never happened again.

Ensuring Victims’ Rights to Notice and Tracking

In 2013, we also passed a law requiring law enforcement jurisdictions to keep rape survivors apprised of the status of their kits. Last year, we learned that the law was not working as we'd hoped. A survivor reached out to her elected official, State Representative Donna Howard, and explained that she didn't have any real way to know the status of her rape kit. Rep. Howard set out to find a solution. If UPS can track a package from one part of the world to another using a barcode system, why can’t we do the same for a rape kit?, she thought. Rep. Howard worked tirelessly this year to pass a law that will create a computerized tracking system to aid police jurisdictions in keeping track of their evidence and, more importantly, will allow survivors to log in and check the status of their kits.

By creating this statewide tracking system, Texas became the first in the nation to implement the six key pillars of legislative rape kit reform, as recommended by Joyful Heart. Work remains, but we are proud to be the first in the nation to achieve this milestone.

Survivors’ Voices Drive Change

There is a common thread in every step of reform. Each success occurred because someone who had been traumatized by rape came forward and made their story known. They shook us out of our comfortable realities and laid bare the need for each of us to do something.

If there is anything I have learned in my public service career, it’s that there is no challenge you can't overcome with the strength of a courageous individual who is willing to come forward, share her or his unique story, and work to create change. Knowing who, rather than just what, we are fighting for is the most important incentive for a policymaker when faced with obstacles in making change.

There is still so much work to be done—not only to create appropriate criminal justice responses and remedies for survivors of sexual assault, but also to prevent assaults from occurring. It is slow and often frustrating work. But we are chipping away at it, one legislative solution at a time, thanks to each brave person who comes forward and reminds us who it is we are fighting for.

-By Wendy Davis, July 18, 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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