Sexual assault victims, nurses speak out for funding to test backlogged rape kits at City Council meeting

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Photo Credit: Joshua Guerra | Daily Texan Staff

Austin City Council members heard public testimony Thursday from PS 1.04 and PS 1.07 amendment supporters who want the 2016–17 budget to help reopen and staff the DNA testing lab that processes rape kits for the City of Austin.

The Austin Police Department’s DNA lab closed in June. Currently, rape kits are being sent to the Department of Public Safety instead. 

The DPS lab only tests 20 kits per month, a rate which amendment supporters like members of the SAFE Alliance said would not keep up with new cases, much less deal with the 3,000 tests sitting in the backlog.

City Council members heard from a variety of supporters, including sexual assault nurse examiner Paula Marks, who spoke about her experience interviewing and testing people after they had been assaulted. She detailed the kind of questions she asks victims, the examination process and victims’ concerns. 

“The question always comes up, ‘When will I get my results?’” Marks said. “For that question, I have no acceptable answer. They’re told the exam will help them seek justice for their case and prevent future assaults. How do you think they feel when I reveal the truth? It will probably take at least two years, maybe more.”

Marks pointed out that before the DNA lab closed in June, it was able to process about 40 rape kits every month. Marks said they’ve cared for 50 rape survivors in the last six days, according to the City Council transcript. 

“I’m ashamed to tell an already traumatized person who came to us looking for assistance through this awful chapter of their life we realistically have no idea,” Marks said.

Rape kits from sexual assaults on the UT campus are currently processed by the DPS lab as well, according to UTPD spokesperson Rhonda Weldon.

A third-year UT student from Central Texas also spoke about her own sexual assault in Austin during the hearing. Her rape kit has been sitting in the backlog for one year and 22 days.

She described her love for the city and how welcomed she felt when she first moved to Austin.

“I knew that I had found my home,” said the student, who The Daily Texan decided not to identify because she is a victim of sexual assault. “That was all taken from me in a single night a year ago. My sense of safety and security were ripped away from me as a man slammed my head against a parking garage wall and proceeded to rape me.”

The student went on to explain how recovering from an assault is made more difficult by the knowledge that an attacker could still be free. 

“We deserve our city back,” the student said. “We deserve to be able to cope with this trauma without the fear that our assaulter is still at large in our home.”

She also said that it’s hard for her to attend class knowing that the man who assaulted her has been on campus. She said she’s had panic attacks on her trips to class, fearing she will run into her attacker. 

“Austin is a very supportive and beautiful community,” she said. “I think the community is showing you today that this is something we’re taking a stand on.”

City councilman Greg Casar, who represents District 4, originally introduced the amendments, which will provide $1.4 million to staff the lab with seven analysts and a supervisor and $500,000 to outsource 500 kits to other labs. He appeared to be moved by the testimony of one of the victims at the hearing. 

“We’re gonna find the money,” Casar said to the speaker. 

The City Council’s fiscal year begins Oct. 1, according to City Council documents. Budget readings will take place on Sept. 12–14, and any amendments will be adopted Sept. 22.