There are more than 2,000 untested rape kits in Texas. The legislative session introduced multiple bills to advocate for sexual-assault survivors.
By Anna Lassmann
Lavinia Masters was raped at knifepoint in her Dallas home when she was 13 years old. Following the assault, Masters underwent a sexual-assault forensic exam and evidence from the exam was stored in her rape kit and sat untouched and untested for more than 21 years.
“I sat alone in the darkness,” Masters said during a February press conference. “Alone, afraid, terrified, traumatized, wondering when would my first responders come to my rescue. …But my rescue did come over 21 years later. … I was left alone, abandoned. I felt no one cared and everyone forgot about me.”
Masters’ experience is not uncommon. Sexual-assault victims usually have 72 hours to take a forensic exam to collect DNA evidence of the crime. That evidence is then stored in a rape kit, a container storing any materials relevant to the case. Rape kits in Texas are tested at state laboratories under the Texas Department of Public Safety. According to the most recent 2017 data from Texas DPS, there are still more than 2,100 untested rape kits in the state, which places Texas 24th among the 39 states with known backlogs, according to advocacy-focused program End the Backlog.
The Stop Abuse for Everyone Alliance in Austin provides a multitude of services, including sexual-assault forensic exams. Jenny Black, SAFE’s director of forensic nursing, says it’s difficult to not be able to provide patients with a definite timeline for the processing of their rape kits. However, Black says she is hopeful, thanks to the progress being made through sexual-assault legislation.
“Things are heading in the right direction and that’s really, really good,” Black says. “I know that they’re aiming for a really tight turnaround, and we’ll get there. We’re just not there yet.”
Black says the organization expects to serve about 700 sexual-assault patients this year. But based on statistics from the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, only about 3.5 percent of Texans who have been sexually assaulted seek help from sexual-assault nurse examiners like those at SAFE. This means, Black says, there are about 19,000 people in SAFE’s service area who have been sexually assaulted but don’t seek out the services that SAFE and other organizations offer. Additionally, she estimates there are only about 350 sexual-assault forensic nurses in the entire state of Texas.
“We need to have things be as streamlined as possible and be as focused on sexual-assault response, being robust so that there can be more people to do the work to take care of people who are being sexually assaulted,” she says.
This year’s legislative session introduced several sexual-assault bills to address the backlog and streamline procedures for survivors. Masters is the namesake of House Bill 8, the Lavinia Masters Act, which was proposed by state Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, to combat the backlog of rape kits in Texas.
By the time Masters’ kit was tested, the 10-year statute of limitations for sexual assault had expired. Masters’ attacker was in prison by 2005—two decades after her 1985 rape—for other crimes.
“My perpetrator, he violated others,” Masters says. “When they finally found out who he was, he was known as a serial rapist—all because my evidence sat on a shelf. … I feel a lot of this could’ve been avoided had my kit not sat on that shelf.”
It took more than 20 years before Masters felt healed enough to start sharing her story. She has since authored the book Breathe Again: How Rape Brought a Girl from Misery to a Woman of Ministry and serves as a victim advocate for the DNA rape-kit backlog.
“Today is that day that we say no more victims to remain underground, trapped, alone, traumatized,” Masters says. “They deserve to be free. They deserve to be accounted for. They deserve to see the light of day. And laws such as this one give every victim an opportunity to get their rape kit off the shelf and give somebody their life back.”
The bill would require an audit of all untested rape kits in Texas to determine their status, create a timeline for the analysis of newly collected kits, prohibit law-enforcement agencies from destroying kits in an uncharged or unsolved case until either the length of the statute of limitations or 50 years and toll the statute of limitations for sexual assault until the rape kit is tested.
“We must prioritize Texas women and ensure that survivors of rape are receiving long-overdue justice,” Neave says. “Every rape kit is not just a number sitting on a shelf. Every rape kit represents a survivor. Every rape kit tells a story.”
Neave has also sponsored two other bills related to sexual-assault victims. House Bill 616 would streamline the process for sexual-assault nurse examiners to apply for reimbursement for forensic sexual-assault exams. The current system routes reimbursements through law-enforcement agencies and cumbersome paperwork.
“It would simplify everybody’s processes,” Black says. “It would decrease the administrative load that law-enforcement agencies have. It would decrease our administrative load as well because we would be sending invoices to one place instead of many places and trying to keep up with all of that at many places.”
House Bill 282, which would require law-enforcement officers to undergo training for trauma-informed interviewing of sexual-assault victims, was also introduced by Neave.
HB 8—which has been sponsored by more than 75 other legislators—and HB 616 have passed the House and have been sent to the Senate. HB 282, however, has had its House vote postponed.
“We’re just always really glad when people come in, if only to have a conversation with us,” Black says, “because I think people don’t really know what’s available to them and that everything we offer is free. We’re glad to help people sort out what it is they might like to do and encourage folks to reach out for that, if nothing else.”
Those who need support in fighting sexual assault or exploitation, domestic violence or child abuse can call the SAFEline at 512.267.7233, text SAFEline at 737.888.7233 or chat at safeaustin.org/chat.