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Monday, March 1, 2021

Efforts to protect sexual assault victims advance in Senate

 

MICHAEL BRICK,Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — For Nicole Anderson, the courage to report the crime was just the beginning.

“I was raped one year, eighth months and twelve days ago,” she told a legislative committee this week. “I couldn’t go anywhere to get the help I needed.”

Turned away by hospitals that declined to gather crucial physical evidence, Anderson has continued to speak out. And now state lawmakers are listening.

The Texas Senate is advancing new protections for victims of sexual assault, along with some money to start investigating older cases.

On Thursday, the Senate approved SB 1192, which would give victims the right to track the physical evidence as it is submitted for lab analysis. The bill still must pass the House.

Another measure, SB 1191, emerged earlier this week from the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. If approved, it would require nearly every hospital to either provide the resources necessary to gather physical evidence, commonly known as a rape kit, or to provide a transfer to a different hospital. Testimony showed that many hospitals currently refuse to gather the evidence because of liability concerns.

“These bills would ensure that the victims of these horrific crimes are respected and are made partners in the pursuit of justice,” said Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth.

Davis’ proposals represent significant progress. Just six years ago, the state did not even collect statistics on sexual assault.

Since then, according to the most recent figures available, the Department of Public Safety counted 19,011 victims in 2011.

Like Anderson, who said she was raped by a co-worker, more than 17 percent described their attackers as a male “acquaintance.” Nearly 8 percent were raped by men they considered their boyfriends.

The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sex crimes, but Anderson has publicly told her story to encourage passage of the legislation.

For those who report the crime, finding a hospital willing to gather evidence presents only the first of many obstacles.

“No other crime collects as much evidence from a live person,” notes a manual published by the state attorney general’s office. “Having your person gone over with a fine tooth comb, your blood and saliva samples taken, your fingernails scraped and every orifice that has already been violated swabbed with cotton on a stick can be a devastating experience.”

The DPS has estimated that more than 22,000 of those rape kids have gone untested, partly due to laboratory backlogs. Budget proposals moving through the legislature include $11 million to clear a backlog of more than 22,000 untested evidence kits.

Testing the old kits, even those taken from victims who no longer want to testify, could help investigators expand databases of DNA.

But “the state needs to be prepared for all the follow-up work that needs to occur,” said William Wells, a criminal justice expert at Sam Houston State University. Wells, who is advising the Houston Police Department on handling its backlog, said prosecuting the cases will require working through old files to track down victims and witnesses.

For Anderson, whose sister spent five hours driving with her to three different hospitals around Dallas the night of the attack, it is already too late. She says she was drugged, but has no evidence.

“This legislation,” John Whitmire, chairman of the criminal justice committee told her, “will go a long way to help others.”

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Senate Bill 1191: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=SB1191

Senate Bill 1192: http://www.legis.state.tx.us/BillLookup/History.aspx?LegSess=83R&Bill=SB1192

Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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