Advocates Ask Council to Solve Rape Kit Backlog

APD’s DNA lab closure puts 1,300 kits on hold indefinitely

Advocates Ask Council to Solve Rape Kit Backlog
photo by jana birchum

Victims' advocates joined Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and District 4 Council Member Greg Casar Thursday morning to call on City Council to immediately prioritize the Austin Police Department’s rape kit backlog in light of the DNA lab closure.

Advocates say the embattled lab’s closure will slow down an already sluggish process, further delaying justice for sexual assault victims.

One of those advocates is Delma Catalina Limones, who four years ago was sexually abused. She thought people would believe her when she came forward. But she was wrong, she said. Instead Limones said she felt victim-blamed and had little support as she went through the legal process. Seeking justice was a long and arduous process that tested her resolve.

“Coming forward about sexual abuse is a very scary, vulnerable yet brave thing to do,” Limones said at yesterday’s press conference. “Many survivors don’t come forward about abuse because we still live in a world where believing a survivor is a very radical act.”

Limones said she was able to find closure in her case because the DNA evidence that was tested linked the perpetrator to the crime. But that’s not the same for many sexual assault survivors. Across the county, cities including Austin are dealing with a rape kit backlog crisis that is delaying justice for victims brave enough to come forward, Limones said. “Too many times, the only thing that is standing between a survivor of sexual abuse and the justice that they deserve is the evidence to prove to everyone what they knew all along.”

Prior to shuttering last month, APD’s lab would take 12 to 18 months to process DNA evidence. Now, advocates say they don’t know how long it will take the department to test its backlog as it waits to reopen the lab – which APD said will likely take six months after training with the state Department of Public Safety. “We right now are having to tell survivors when we’re talking about this process … and how long it would take, ‘I don’t know’,” said Coni Stogner, vice president of Prevention and Community Services at SAFE Alliance, at the press conference. “It is horrible to have to say that to a survivor.”

Stogner said it is “extraordinarily distressing” that APD’s backlog of 1,300 kits will mean that “perpetrators stay on the streets longer.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Ana Rodriguez DeFrates, a member of the Austin Commission for Women. Rodriguez DeFrates said she will ask the commission to recommend to City Council that sexual assault cases – nearly 700 of which were reported last year in the city – be prioritized within the city budget. “We know every day these assaults are being reported and every day evidence is being collected,” Rodriguez DeFrates said at the conference. “We need to be able to convey the assurance to survivors that something will be done with that evidence so the answer is not just ‘I don’t know.’”

Tovo and Casar said they will both work with their fellow council members to allocate resources needed to prioritize sexual assault cases and reduce the backlog. “We can’t get further behind,” Casar said. “We have to do everything we can to address this.”

Commander Nick Wright said APD recognizes its backlog difficulties. The majority of those cases, though, are not active threats of violence, he said. The ones that do pose an active threat will either be sent to DPS or Sorenson Forensics in Salt Lake City. (Council recently approved an 18-month contract with the Utah-based company to analyze an additional 2,000 kits by next September.) In the meantime, the department is moving forward with improving its lab so it can serve justice to victims. “APD is 100 percent committed to getting the lab back on track,” said Wright.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Austin Police Department, City Council, DNA lab, rape kit backlog, sexual assault

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