State Coalitions and Survivor-Centered Policies

Today’s guest author is Chris Kaiser, Director of Public Policy and General Counsel at the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA). Texas recently became the first state in the nation to implement all of our six legislative pillars of rape kit reform. Here, Chris shares TAASA’s advocacy efforts to enact a statewide tracking system and ensure policies are survivor-centered.

Recent years have brought both appalling revelations and encouraging reforms concerning the handling of sexual assault evidence kits (SAKs). Like many advocacy organizations, the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA) has worked to evaluate the processing of SAKs in our state and to promote effective, survivor-centered investigations.

Recent Developments in Texas

During the last eight years, TAASA has advocated for reforms focused on auditing the size and nature of Texas’s accumulation of untested kits, guaranteeing prompt analysis of all new kits, securing funding for forensic analysis, and establishing trauma-informed policies for survivor participation. This year, we are thrilled the Texas legislature passed a new law creating an electronic tracking system for all SAKs in the state.

H.B. 281, introduced by Representative Donna Howard, directs the state’s Department of Public Safety to establish a system to track the location and status of forensic evidence related to sexual assault cases, requires each entity in the chain of custody to use the system, and mandates that survivors be able to anonymously access the status of their own evidence. A previous law had provided survivors in Texas a qualified right to information about the status of their SAKs, but the law proved insufficient. Survivors needed bolder action.

Why It Matters

H.B. 281 is a significant step to ensure accountability and efficiency in sexual assault investigations. But it also represents a critical philosophical shift toward prioritizing the needs and rights of survivors. The widespread failure to process sexual assault evidence reflects a systemic devaluing of survivors—predominantly women—and an acquiescence to perpetrators of gender-based violence. Unsurprisingly, then, sexual assault remains among the most severely underreported crimes.

If we are serious about improving confidence in the criminal legal response to rape, we must significantly improve survivors’ treatment in the system. Simply put, our actions speak louder than words. We believe measures like H.B. 281, which promote transparency and autonomy for survivors, are a critical part of the solution.

Implementing a SAK Tracking System

As H.B. 281’s September effective date approaches, we are considering what implementation challenges might arise.

First, it will be crucial to educate all people along the chain of custody about the tracking system’s operation. Medical professionals, law enforcement officials, crime lab technicians, prosecutors, and survivor advocates will all be affected. As a state sexual assault coalition, TAASA anticipates developing training and educational materials for our affiliated rape crisis centers and other professionals.

Second, protecting survivors’ privacy is a top priority. Although our statute expressly requires that the tracking system provide “anonymous” access to survivors, data security risks are possible. Vendors and officials responsible for designing the system must view survivor privacy as a primary concern.

Third, maintaining the tracking system in the future will require ongoing funding. After the initial cost to develop and implement the tracking system, Texas’s nonpartisan Legislative Budget Board estimated the maintenance cost at approximately $300,000 per year. Going forward, TAASA intends to factor that budget item into our broader appropriations advocacy.

Sexual Assault Coalitions and Rape Kit Reform

State legislatures often view state sexual assault coalitions as the most credible voice on sexual violence. The coalitions can be a key voice in policy discussions about SAK testing. TAASA and many other coalitions have been instrumental in convening workgroups, consulting on audits, and articulating the importance of reforms. Some, like the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s Sexual Violence Justice Institute, have published comprehensive issue briefs describing key issues and lessons learned.

State coalitions are well-equipped and positioned to promote a survivor-centered framing of the rape kit backlog. It’s crucial to audit the number of backlogged and untested kits in a jurisdiction, and at the same time assess the extent to which survivors from marginalized communities are disproportionately affected. It’s crucial to establish protocols for investigating old cases with newly tested evidence, while also designing trauma-informed survivor notification processes. And it’s crucial to secure funding for forensic analysis, as well as for support services for the vast majority of survivors who have not engaged with the criminal justice system.

Absent a survivor-advocacy voice, the discourse around SAK testing can swing toward sensational stories that do not represent most survivors’ circumstances. By representing survivors’ diverse needs and experiences, state coalitions bring important nuances to the policy discussion. In turn, we can help guide the rape kit reform effort with survivors’ interests at the forefront, reshaping the response to rape as one that affirms survivors’ deserving of fundamental dignity and healing.

-By Chris Kaiser, July 20, 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.

keep up with backlog news

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