Donations From Drivers Might Help End Rape Kit Backlog In Texas

Apr 12, 2017
Originally published on April 12, 2017 4:31 pm

Across the country, there's a backlog of kits containing potential evidence of sexual assaults. Victim advocates say the situation threatens public safety. Lawmakers in dozens of states are pushing for funding, and in Texas, one state representative has offered an innovative solution.

Thousands of rape kits sit sealed and untested in forensics labs and law enforcement offices in Texas. What's missing is state and local funding to pay to analyze the evidence in many of those kits.

If state Rep. Victoria Neave has her way, residents could help chip in. When Texans go to the Department of Public Safety office to apply for a driver's license, they'd be asked if they'd like to help the state pay to test DNA evidence from sexual assault cases — in the same way they're asked if they want to donate to support veterans or organ donation.

The bill, introduced by Neave, a Democrat from Dallas, has passed the House, and the state's Senate is expected to vote on it soon.

"Our bill is expected to generate $1 million per year and would help address and end the backlog of untested rape kits," Neave says.

When rape victims go to the hospital, they can get forensic evidence taken to help identify and prosecute their assailant. Each kit can cost between $500 and $2,000 to test, so many don't get tested.

The scale of the backlog in Texas is unclear. Neave says there are about 4,000 in Dallas County, another 3,000 or so in and around Austin, and 3,600 more in a lab in Houston.

"That's just in a few counties," she says. "We anticipate there are thousands more that are across the whole state that are untested."

A growing problem

The Lone Star State is not alone in amassing a backlog of untested rape kits. Lawmakers in 27 states filed legislation this year to help deal with the situation.

And Texas has tried to deal with this before. Lawmakers allocated $11 million to clear a backlog of nearly 20,000 rape kits discovered in 2011. The state is still working through kits dating far back to the mid-'90s, but that money was restricted, so it only pays to test old kits. Lawmakers are planning to budget more money for testing this year, but advocates say that still won't stop kits collected in the future from being backlogged because, again, it would only address old kits.

Victims' advocates say each kit represents a person who says she or he was raped.

"Sexual assault is unique because the victim's body is the crime scene," says Alisha Byerly from the Women's Center of Tarrant County in Fort Worth, who supervises a team of advocates who help victims when they go to the hospital.

Collecting a rape kit often takes hours, and Byerly says it's a difficult process. The victim has to re-tell all the details of the rape, and then a nurse examines, swabs and photographs her most private places, gathering samples of hair, semen, fabric fibers and skin cells. It's evidence of a crime that's just happened. In most cases, DNA evidence needs to be collected within 72 hours of the assault.

"In the process of already being very mentally traumatizing, and having all that control taken away from their body, and them trying to regain this control, they're extremely uncomfortable and it's extremely invasive," Byerly says.

After all of that, Byerly says, to put that evidence on a shelf and ignore it is deeply discouraging for victims.

Ilse Knecht says it's a symptom of a larger social and political problem. "The rape kit backlog is actually a systemic failure of the criminal justice system to take sexual assault cases seriously," she says.

Knecht leads a national campaign called End the Backlog, which is funded by the Joyful Heart Foundation, and aims to help end the backlog of rape kits across the country.

It's impossible to know just how big the backlog is nationwide because a lot of states, like Texas, don't keep track. But Knecht says it's been a problem in states and cities across the country. And that, she says, threatens public safety.

"Rapists are very often serial offenders," she says. "They commit all kinds of crime. They commit crimes against people they know and people they don't know and they just don't stop."

When Detroit started testing 10,000 untested kits that it had warehoused for years, it identified more than 780 suspected serial rapists. It led to dozens of convictions, and connected crimes in 40 states. In Cleveland, evidence from old rape kits connected a man to 15 sexual assaults.

No nationwide standard

Even if there were adequate funding, not all kits should be tested, Knecht says, because victims have the right to have a rape kit collected without reporting the crime to the police. In Texas, the Department of Public Safety holds onto the kits for two years, giving survivors time to decide to file charges later. Other states save kits for different amounts of time. Still, Knecht stresses that the backlog is primarily made up of kits that should be tested, because they are evidence of a crime that has been reported to law enforcement.

Knecht says states vary widely when it comes to standards for testing and tracking rape kits. Eventually, she hopes that every state develops laws to mandate testing of all rape kits connected to reported assaults quickly, and set up a system for survivors to track their own kit anonymously.

In Texas, bills have also been introduced to require law enforcement to track rape kits after they're collected.

"We are seeing legislators across the country finding the dollars in their budgets because they prioritized it, and saying this is something we need to invest in, it's a public safety issue," Knecht says.

Neave says she still thinks it's better for state and local governments to budget the money to pay for testing. At least through public donations, she says, there will be some money to help end the backlog.

"It shouldn't get to the point of us having to ask individuals to contribute," says Neave, "but I believe in the hearts and compassion of our fellow Texans that a dollar here, a dollar there, and all of us working together can generate funds to help these women and victims of sexual assault get justice."

Christopher Connelly is a reporter for NPR member station KERA and covers Fort Worth, Texas. You can follow him on Twitter @hithisischris.

Copyright 2017 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In Texas, thousands of rape kits are just sitting in police stations and labs. Each kit contains evidence from victims who have reported sexual assaults, but there's no money to analyze that evidence. Now, the state legislature looks set to approve a measure that would ask Texans to chip in. A warning, this story discusses sexual assault and some listeners may find it troubling. Here's Christopher Connelly of member station KERA.

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: (Over loudspeaker) Now serving 954 at station six.

CHRISTOPHER CONNELLY, BYLINE: When you go to a Department of Public Safety Office in Texas to apply for a driver's license, the application asks if you want to donate a buck or more to support veterans or another good cause. If State Representative Victoria Neave has her way, you'll be asked if you'd like to help pay to test DNA evidence from sexual assault cases.

VICTORIA NEAVE: Our bill is expected to generate a million dollars per year and would help address and end the backlog of untested rape kits.

CONNELLY: When rape victims go to the hospital, they often get forensic evidence collected to help identify and prosecute their assailant. Those evidence samples go into a rape kit. But analyzing the DNA evidence is expensive, up to $2,000 for each kit, so many just don't get tested. Exactly how many is not clear. The state doesn't keep track. Neave says there are a few thousand in each of Texas's largest counties.

NEAVE: That's just in a few counties. And so we anticipate there are thousands more that are across the whole state that are untested.

CONNELLY: The Lone Star State is not alone in amassing a backlog of untested rape kits. Lawmakers in 27 states filed legislation this year to reform rape kit processing. And Texas has tried to deal with the problem before, the legislature budgeted money but only to test old kits.

They're thinking about doing that again this year. But advocates say that won't stop kits collected in the future from being backlogged. Victims' advocates say each kit represents a person who says she or he was raped.

ALISHA BYERLY: Sexual assault is unique because the victim's body is the crime scene.

CONNELLY: Alisha Byerly is with the Tarrant County Women's Center in Fort Worth. Collecting a rape kit often takes hours. A victim has to retell all the details of the rape, and then a nurse examines, swabs, photographs her most private places, gathering samples of hair, semen, fabric fibers, skin cells, evidence of a crime that's just happened.

BYERLY: In the process of already being very mentally traumatizing and having all that control taken away from their body and them trying to regain this control, they're extremely uncomfortable and it's extremely invasive.

CONNELLY: After all of that, Byerly says, to put that evidence on a shelf and ignore it is deeply discouraging for victims. Ilse Knecht says it's the symptom of a larger problem.

ILSE KNECHT: The rape kit backlog is actually a systemic failure of the criminal justice system to take sexual assault cases seriously.

CONNELLY: Knecht leads a national campaign called End the Backlog. It's impossible to know just how many rape kits have gone untested nationwide because, like Texas, most states don't keep track. Even though she's encouraged by efforts across the country to better test and track rape kits, Knecht says a chronic backlog in evidence analysis is a threat to public safety.

KNECHT: Rapists are very often serial offenders. They commit all kinds of crimes. They commit crimes against people they know and people they don't know and they just don't stop.

CONNELLY: In Detroit, working through 10,000 backlogged kits has helped authorities identify more than 780 suspected serial rapists. In Cleveland, evidence from old kids connected one man to 15 different sexual assaults. In Texas, Victoria Neave says it's up to state and local governments to properly fund this essential piece of law enforcement.

NEAVE: It shouldn't get to the point of us having to ask individuals to contribute, but I just - I believe in the hearts and compassion of our fellow Texans, that a dollar here, a dollar there and all of us working together can generate funds to help these women and victims of sexual assault get justice.

CONNELLY: At least by crowdfunding, Neave says, there will be some money to help end the backlog in Texas. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Connelly in Fort Worth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.