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These important new laws will help more Texas sexual assault survivors find justice

What happens in a rape kit exam?

A sexual assault evidence kit contains forensic evidence gathered from a victim's body during an intrusive, hours-long examination. Testing kits can find DNA evidence used to identify rapists, boost prosecutions or exonerate the falsely accused.
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A sexual assault evidence kit contains forensic evidence gathered from a victim's body during an intrusive, hours-long examination. Testing kits can find DNA evidence used to identify rapists, boost prosecutions or exonerate the falsely accused.

Legislators took historic steps this year to help Texas sexual assault survivors.

The Legislature dedicated nearly $80 million to sexual assault services and programs over the next two years — an unprecedented investment. Many of these funds will start flowing to the institutions responsible for handling sexual assault cases in Texas when the new state budget year starts Sunday.

The Department of Public Safety will receive $48 million to dramatically reduce the amount of time it takes to test a rape kit, ending one of the testing bottlenecks that make up the “rape kit backlog.” A commitment of nearly $8 million will support underfunded rape crisis centers forced to regularly turn people away because they lack the capacity to fully serve their communities. Another $1 million will increase the number of sexual assault nurse examiners in rural areas.

Collectively, the new laws have the potential to chip away at the flaws in a system that has rarely supported survivors. They are also more survivor-focused than previous legislation and do more to prioritize survivors’ health over tougher penalties for offenders. More importantly, they provide a level of resources that will give survivors a better opportunity for justice, recovery and healing.

One of the most important investments comes from Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, who introduced legislation to address the lack of a sexual assault nurse examiners in about 85% of Texas counties. This new law establishes a telemedicine program that will deliver high-quality medical forensic care to survivors, especially those in rural areas. With only 468 certified practitioners in Texas, the program will dramatically expand the locations where survivors can obtain care.

Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, authored legislation that directs a Sexual Assault Survivors’ Task Force to spend the next four years identifying systemic issues for survivors and help develop improved standards of care — from prevention, to investigations and prosecution, to services available to survivors. Howard also passed legislation for college campuses, improving programs, training, and procedures for sexual assault, stalking, and dating violence.

A bill by Rep. Craig Goldman, R-Fort Worth, has doubled the statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse lawsuits, allowing victims 30 years — instead of 15 — to sue their abusers and the institutions that protect them. This legislation could prevent further abuse by giving institutions incentive to intervene.

Until this year, Texas has been one of only a few states to penalize groping much like a traffic ticket. But legislation by Sen. Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, strengthened laws to create an offense that comes with possible jail time and steeper fines.

A higher-profile issue, the rape kit backlog, led to Rep. Victoria Neave’s HB 8, also known as the Lavinia Masters Act. The Dallas Democrat’s law reforms the handling of rape kits by DPS and law enforcement agencies, setting clearer timelines and accountability measures. Along with the launch of Texas’s rape-kit tracking system in September, these reforms will go a long way to building cases against offenders and improving the odds of justice for survivors.

Together, they mean moving toward rebuilding the trust of a community that witnessed the discovery of thousands of untested rape kits only a few years ago.

These laws will soon begin to change the path for untold numbers of survivors. Each new measure will improve how sexual assault cases are handled, from the hospital examining room to counseling centers and courtrooms. They are a crucial first step to improved transparency, accountability and renewed confidence in our system.

Each is a victory in a successful legislative session, and we hope they mark a brand-new era of better care and swifter justice for Texas survivors.

Rose Luna is CEO of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.

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