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Soon, Texas sexual assault survivors will be able track their rape kits online

Nonprofit aimed at helping sexual assault victims launched by the parents of a slain Fort Worth woman

On Tuesday, April 10, 2018, the first anniversary of Molly Matheson's strangulation death, her parents announced Project Beloved: The Molly Jane Mission, a nonprofit geared toward helping victims of sexual violence.
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On Tuesday, April 10, 2018, the first anniversary of Molly Matheson's strangulation death, her parents announced Project Beloved: The Molly Jane Mission, a nonprofit geared toward helping victims of sexual violence.

Survivors of sexual assault will see an added layer of transparency later this year through a statewide database that tracks the progress of sexual assault evidence kits. And Arlington has been one of the first cities to test the new system in Texas.

Mandated by a state law passed in 2017, the database will require police departments, crime labs and medical facilities to update a kit’s location in the criminal justice system. Survivors will be able to access the online database, known as Track-Kit, anonymously. It goes into effect statewide on Sept. 1, 2019.

The database will represent the first time the state has had a comprehensive system to track sexual assault evidence kits, amid a backlog of a little more than 2,000 untested kits in Texas in 2017 and a nationwide decline of police departments’ rate of successfully closing rape investigations.

“As far as how many were collected statewide, during a given period, we just had no way to tell,” said Rebecca Vieh, a Texas Department of Public Safety program specialist for the tracking system. “And so I think that this will definitely answer that question.”

And for survivors, it will help put a sense of control back into their hands.

“It’s going to give them more information. And then in turn, when they have more information, they have more control,” said Alisha Byerly, assistant director of crisis services at the Women’s Center of Tarrant County. “And that’s what we want to give back to survivors, because basically they had all their power and control taken away from them.”

Arlington was one of five cities chosen to participate in an early launch of the system that began June 10. The other cities chosen to identify potential issues before the statewide launch include Amarillo, El Paso, Houston and Lubbock.

The early launch was spurred, in part, by the Dallas-Fort Worth area’s unique workflow, Vieh said. While most of the state has law enforcement pick up a completed kit from the medical facility where it was administered and deliver it to the crime lab, medical facilities in the DFW area place the kit in a lock box from which the crime lab retrieves it directly, Vieh said.

The Arlington Police Department, which was chosen because of history of embracing new programs and its relationships with advocates, also doesn’t use DPS crime labs, which prompted the state to include more pilot cities that do, Vieh said.

Sgt. Tim Pinckney, who oversees the Arlington Police Department’s Sex Crimes Unit, said it was an honor to be selected for the early launch.

“We think it’s a good program to help bridge information-sharing and provide the best level of victim-centered approach we can from from Arlington PD,” Pinckney said.

How it works

A sexual assault forensic exam is an hours-long examination often administered by a trained sexual assault nurse examiner during which DNA evidence is collected from a survivor’s body, clothes and more.

“Sexual assault’s a unique crime, because the victim’s body is the evidence,” Byerly said. “It’s a difficult decision to report in the first place and go get a sexual assault exam after that happened to you. It also ends up being a complex system after that with the criminal justice system.”

Previously, the main way for survivors to receive updates on the whereabouts of their kit was directly through the detective assigned to their case, Pinckney said.

But starting in September, survivors will receive a card once their exam is completed that will include a link to the database, along with a number that corresponds to their kit’s barcode. From there, they can track their kit’s progress, “almost like an Amazon package,” Byerly said.

“It gives them the opportunity to be able to access the information from wherever, whenever they choose to do so — if they choose to do so,” Vieh said. “And that’s a big change from how it is now.”

Survivors will be just one of many groups able to access the database, including staff from medical facilities, crime labs, law enforcement and prosecutors.

Safeguards are also in place to allow survivors to reset their password if they forget.

“Trauma affects the brain,” Byerly said. “And sometimes survivors have difficulty recalling things in a linear fashion, or they have difficulty remembering things.”

Because the law requires that survivors are allowed to remain anonymous when using the database, they can reset their password by answering security questions themselves, or go through their local medical facility or law enforcement.

Implementation

The database has been in the works since 2017 after House Bill 281, authored by Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, was passed.

Purchased from STACS DNA, the tracking system is also used by Washington, Arizona, Nevada and Michigan.

While proponents of the database have touted its transparency, it’s unclear how DPS will determine if the kits are being used.

“I am confident that they are going to hold their peers accountable too, for using the system,” Vieh said of local agencies. “We’re always going to assume that if they’re not using the system, it’s just because they’re not aware that they should be.”

Through the system DPS can monitor who is participating or not, and the department plans to continue training agencies heavily through August.

The system’s launch comes amid a handful of bills passed this legislative session, which will include requiring the state to audit the number of kits, allocate more than $50 million toward training sexual assault examiners and create a Sexual Assault Survivors’ Task Force.

Noting the difficulty of implementing a system throughout a state as large as Texas, Vieh said, “If we can do it any other state should be able to do it as well.”

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Tessa Weinberg is a state government reporter for the Star-Telegram, covering all things policy and politics. She previously covered the Missouri legislature where her reporting prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. A California native and graduate of the University of Missouri, she’s made her way across the U.S. and landed in Texas in May 2019.
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