Sexual Assault Advocates Demand Answers for Rape Kit Negligence

Group pens letter to mayor, police chief, city manager

Disconcerting reports about the current status of APD’s ever-growing rape kit backlog has prompted Travis County’s Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT) to draft a letter to Mayor Steve Adler, Interim City Manager Elaine Hart, and Interim Police Chief Brian Manley requesting immediate clarification about the holdup.

A blank rape kit (or sexual assault forensic exam) (Photo by Jana Birchum)

According to Emily LeBlanc, the project's local co-chair, APD had told SARRT last summer (shortly after the lab closed) that the Department of Public Safety would both store APD’s DNA evidence and test what wasn’t sent over to private labs. But that hasn’t happened. Instead, as she notes, DPS “is warehousing the evidence while APD formulates another plan.” The backlog has since grown to over 4,000 cases, most of which pertain to sexual assault.

Prior to the lab’s closure, sexual assault survivors who wished to prosecute were subject to a three-year process just to get their case to trial. Now, the duration of time is no longer predictable. SAFE Response Coordinator Kristen Lenau told the Chronicle: “We no longer tell survivors how long the wait will be before their kit gets tested. We just have no idea.”

SARRT, a community response team comprised of sexual assault advocates, law enforcement, and prosecutors, exists to create a more cohesive response to sexual assault by working with multiple agencies in charge of aiding rape survivors and prosecuting their attackers.

Emily LeBlanc (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The full text of SARRT’s letter is available below.


Mayor Adler, Ms. Hart, and Chief Manley:

I am writing on behalf of the Austin/Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT). The SARRT is a Coordinated Community Response comprised of the agencies involved in the response to sexual assault victims, including law enforcement, prosecutors, Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners, hospitals, SAFE, and other community agencies. The mission of the SARRT is to enhance the local response to post-pubescent adolescent and adult sexual abuse and assault by ongoing collaboration, training & coordination among the agencies charged with responding to these crimes.

The SARRT would like to express concern and seek clarification about the way forensic evidence is being tested for the Austin Police Department. We were told in the summer of 2016 that all DNA evidence for APD cases was being submitted to the Department of Public Safety for testing. It was also relayed that APD would seek out private labs to expedite the testing, but that DPS would be testing the evidence not sent to the private labs. It is now our understanding that DPS is not testing evidence for APD, but rather is warehousing the evidence while APD formulates another plan. It was reported that, as a result, the number of APD cases awaiting testing is now over 4000 and that most of those are sexual assault cases. We understand that the "batch of 20," identified by the Travis County District Attorney's Office, is still being tested by DPS, but that all other cases are not being put in the queue at DPS for testing. Discussion with the other jurisdictions present at the SARRT also indicated that evidence submitted to DPS by APD is treated differently than evidence submitted by other jurisdictions. We respectfully request clear and comprehensive answers to the following:

1. Are APD cases being placed in the queue for testing at DPS or just being stored?

2. Is all evidence relevant to the case being accepted and tested by DPS or are the items accepted per case limited for APD cases?

3. Has APD received results from DPS on any cases submitted since June 2016, and if so, how many?

4. How many total cases are awaiting DNA testing? Of those, how many are sexual assault-related crimes?

5. Does the proposed inter-local agreement allowing staff to work in the APD lab under DPS supervision restrict the work done by that staff to APD cases?

6. What is the timeline for APD to be caught up on all cases needing testing and to be able to handle the capacity moving forward?

7. Are the sexual assault forensic exam kits being stored at DPS being refrigerated and is chain of custody being maintained?

We are writing to you as leaders of the city because we are no longer confident that the information that has been relayed to the community and to the SARRT over the past 9 months is accurate. We respectfully request that you take immediate action to clarify how evidence is being tested and to be clear and transparent with all stakeholders moving forward. We also urge you to address the long-term plan for testing evidence with urgency. It is unacceptable to wait several months or years to develop a plan. Victims are already made to wait years for justice. Any further delay would put further undue burden on the community's most vulnerable residents. Furthermore, allowing evidence to go untested means that perpetrators are not held accountable and continue to pose an imminent threat to public safety.

The SARRT partners are ready and willing to assist the City of Austin and Austin Police Department however is necessary. We look forward to identifying swift and transparent solutions to the current challenges and appreciate your assistance in clarifying the current state of affairs and the plan moving forward.

Sincerely,

Emily Rudenick LeBlanc, LPC-5

Co-Chair, Austin/Travis County SARRT

See original letter
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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

SARRT, Sexual Assault Resource and Recovery Team, Austin Police Department, APD Forensics Lab, SAFE, Rape Kits

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