Rape Kit Backlog Threatens Justice for Survivors

Closed DNA lab delays already strained system

Emily LeBlanc of The SAFE Alliance (Photo by Jana Birchum)

For sexual assault advocates, the temporary closure of the Austin Police Depart­ment's DNA lab back in June has been especially troubling (see "APD's DNA Lab Shut­ters," June 17). The facility, which closed due to the use of ineffective testing methods and other issues, will not reopen for at least another five months – and repercussions are mounting citywide.

"Currently it takes about three years for a [sexual assault] case to go to trial, if it's pursued that far," says Emily LeBlanc, senior director of community advocacy for The SAFE Alliance, the umbrella organization that unites SafePlace and Austin Children's Shelter. "That will now take even longer in most cases."

With a backlog of about 3,000 sexual assault forensic exams (SAFEs) waiting to be tested – from before June 10 – plus all new or "current" cases (i.e. rape kits that have been collected since the closure), the fear is that the already huge stockpile of rape kits will continue to grow. And the longer it takes to run the required forensic tests, the longer rape survivors – who've decided to press charges – go without justice.

"These are individuals who've experienced a grave violation – unimaginable trauma – and have gathered the courage to have a SAFE performed (a lengthy, uncomfortable process). Then, we fail to test their kit in a timely manner," says SAFE's Community Organizer Amanda Lewis. "Their city tells them they're not worthy of being a priority. They are denied the right to their own bodies by their abuser and then denied justice by their city." Advocates say APD's lab previously took anywhere from eight to 18 months to perform all the required tests. This closure will "result in further delays to an already strained system," adds Lewis.

But just how many rape kits are being collected currently? While The SAFE Alliance didn't have APD's crime reports for June or July at the time of publication, they know that by the end of May – or within the first 152 days of 2016 – there had already been 318 rapes reported to APD this year. That averages more than two each day, and advocates know that the vast majority of survivors do not report.

While survivors may choose to not press charges for numerous reasons, the already too-long timeline is one piece of the problematic pie. "The lab closure is just a symptom of a larger community problem," says Lewis. "There are not nearly enough resources dedicated to the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault."

Until APD's lab reopens – Public Infor­ma­tion Manager Anna Sabana says APD is optimistically hoping for a February 2017 reopening – backlogged SAFEs are being sent to a private lab in Utah. The funding for this is in large part available thanks to a federal ruling and subsequent grant that mandates all rape kits be tested "whether or not they are necessary for the investigation or conviction of a case," says Sabana.

"All new kits will be submitted to Texas Department of Public Safety at this time and must be submitted within 30 days of collection," adds Sabana. "We're currently looking at funding and contracting with an outside lab to assist with the analysis to help ease the burden placed on DPS as they are a state lab with an already demanding ­caseload."

But advocates want more – specifically, they're calling on the city to prioritize resources for testing SAFEs and aiding in rape survivors' well-being. "Failing to test rape kits in a timely manner erodes trust in our community," said Council Member Greg Casar in a media advisory for the July 28 Advocate Speakout also attended by Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo. "Sexual assault cases are massively underreported – if we're asking survivors to come forward, the city must ensure we're upholding our responsibility to pursue justice."

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Austin Police Department, SAFE Alliance, SafePlace, rape kits, sexual assault forensic exam, Austin Children's Shelter, Sorenson

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