Lawmakers have been using Band-Aids to address the backlog of untested rape kits since 2011. This session could bring a real fix.
State lawmakers have been talking about fixing the rape kit backlog since 2011, when former state Senator Wendy Davis passed legislation requiring an audit that revealed at least 18,000 untested rape kits in Texas. But the Legislature hasn’t done enough to clear or monitor the backlog — or to prevent a new one from forming as thousands more are created each year. While there is no current figure available for the number of kits sitting in local police stations across Texas, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) alone has almost 3,000 rape kits in its backlog, according to records obtained last week by the Observer.
But that could soon change, thanks to bipartisan support for a comprehensive bill by state Representative Victoria Neave that takes big steps to address the backlog. At the beginning of the session, the two-term Dallas Democrat promised that she would fight for survivors of sexual assault. “To the thousands of women who are waiting to have their rape kits tested, that are just sitting on shelves, we hear you and we have your back,” Neave said in January.
On Tuesday, her House Bill 8 tentatively passed the House on a unanimous vote. The bill would create new time limits enforced by the state for law enforcement agencies and labs to transport and test rape kits. HB 8 would pause the statute of limitations for sexual assault cases until the evidence is tested — an important provision considering police departments are still submitting kits predating 2011 for testing. The measure also infuses $40 million in new funding to the Department of Public Safety crime lab, which processes rape kits for a majority of law enforcement agencies in Texas. Ultimately, the passage of HB 8 could mean survivors of sexual assault will receive the results of their rape kits faster, aiding law enforcement and those prosecuting these crimes.
Neave named the bill after Lavinia Masters, a Dallas woman whose rape kit sat on a shelf in the Dallas Police Department for 20 years. Masters was raped in 1985, at the age of 13, but her kit was not tested until 2005. And that was only after Masters called Dallas police to inquire about her evidence after she saw a news report about the backlog. When her kit was finally tested, it revealed that her attacker was a serial rapist. While the statute of limitations for Masters to bring her own charges had run out, Masters said knowing the man who assaulted her is in prison gave her closure.
“Getting these rape kits off the shelf means giving someone their life back,” she said at a Capitol press conference.
Masters’ is one of thousands of survivors who have been forced to live without answers, as their rape kits gather dust — and even mold — on the shelves of law enforcement agencies in Texas. After the 2011 audit revealed at least 18,000 were backlogged in Texas, the Legislature appropriated $11 million to address the issue in 2013.
“I think there was a false sense that we’d gotten this issue handled,” Davis told the Observer. “What we’ve come to understand is that $11 million was not nearly enough.”
In 2017, the Legislature appropriated an additional $4.2 million for testing, as well as $1 million to create a statewide tracking system for all new rape kits, which is slated to go online in September. Meanwhile, rape kits have continued to stack up. According to Neave, about 18,000 kits are created in Texas each year, eventually ending up either at local police stations or the DPS crime lab. Combined with the soon-to-launch tracking system, HB 8 will ensure all rape kits in Texas are accounted for going forward, advocates say.
Past changes have left loopholes that HB 8 would address. For example, Davis passed legislation in 2011 that created a 30-day time limit for police to transport kits for testing. While Texas was one of the first states to pass such a law, there was no enforcement mechanism or deadlines for the subsequent steps in the testing process. Combined with insufficient state crime lab funding, that made it hard to predict when survivors will get results, according to sexual assault nurse examiners in Texas.
“We used to be able to tell people that it will take about six months, and then it moved to ‘It will be about nine months’, and then it moved to ‘It will be about two years’, and then it was ‘We don’t know anymore, the police can’t tell us,’” said Jenny Black, the director of forensic nursing at the SAFE Alliance in Austin.
HB 8 creates time limits for every step of the rape kit testing process, including uploading the results to a federal database. The bill also makes agencies that fail to meet the deadlines ineligible for state grants, giving the law some teeth. The $40 million allotted for DPS would allow the agency to hire more staff and run a second shift at its crime lab to catch up on testing DNA evidence.
HB 8, which resulted from a sexual assault task force created by Neave’s office in the interim, is the first major sexual assault legislation to pass the House this session, but likely not the last. Neave has also filed a bill to study how colleges and universities are handling reports of sexual assault, a bill to create a specialty court for sexual assault survivors and a handful of bills related to sexual harassment. Another bill by Neave to expedite payment to hospitals for sexual assault exams also passed the House on Tuesday.
Both Governor Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen have publicly expressed their support for legislation improving justice for survivors of sexual assault. Though Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who presides over the Senate, has been less outspoken, Neave told the Observer Tuesday that unanimous support in the House is a precursor to passage in the Senate.
“The fact that [HB 8] passed unanimously is a testament to the strength of the women who have been raising their voices for years, and especially through the #MeToo movement,” she said. “We want them to know we heard you, and this is our way of legislating justice.”