When she was 15, Courtney Underwood was raped by her pastor. She'd grown up in Highland Park, attended a religious private school and had no idea how to talk about what had happened to her or ask for help. It took her two years to discuss the rape at all, and much longer to tell her mother.
Later, when Underwood became a student at SMU, she started advocating for better post-sexual assault treatment for Dallas residents. At the time, there was no sexual assault hotline and just one hospital, Parkland, where victims could get the sort of forensic examination crucial to securing a rape conviction. Underwood helped open the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center, which officially opened its doors in January 2010 and implemented a hotline, counseling, advocacy and other services for rape victims. And yesterday, she and DARCC finally fulfilled one of their longest-standing goals, opening a new office in Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.
"I thought it would take like two months," Underwood said at an event celebrating the new center. Instead, it took seven years.
With the opening of the new Presbyterian offices, DARCC will double their staff and offer more counseling and advocacy, which survivors can obtain for free in the same place where their rape exam is performed.
"I spent years fighting to bring Dallas the service we so desperately need," Underwood, now 29, told the crowd. She said that a veteran reporter had recently told her that she never would have believed that "this little SMU girl" could change victim's services in the city so profoundly.
It's unequivocally great news. But in taking care of rape survivors and bringing their attackers to justice, Dallas, and Texas as a whole, continue to lag well behind other states in two crucial areas.
In November of 2010, Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins pledged to help unclog the backlog of the thousands of rape kits sitting untested in Dallas County. Last year, the Texas Legislature, taking note of the problem of untested rape kits statewide, passed a law requiring law enforcement to report how many rape kits they've left untested, then submit them to a crime lab. But a recent report from the Texas Observer found that as of January 2012, most agencies still hadn't reported their totals. Dallas was one of them.
As Texas criminal justice blog Grits For Breakfast points out, legislators, in crafting the bill, estimated that of the 7,000 to 9,000 rape kits collected in Dallas county between 1996 and 2010, only about 40 percent "have been or will be submitted for testing." There are several reasons kits might not be tested: if the suspect has admitted to having sex with the victim and the contested issue is consent, or if there's no suspect DNA against which to match the DNA in the kit.
But as the DNA database grows, so too does the possibility that past crimes could finally be solved. And the longer rape kits sit gathering dust, the greater the chance is that the statute of limitations on a crime will run out.
And there's still the matter of accessibility. Watkins told the crowd at yesterday's press conference that having just two hospitals that can collect evidence in a city with more than a million people still isn't enough. He recounted a recent conversation with a D.A. from a smaller town in Oregon who asked Watkins, incredulously, "That's all you have?"
"We have to realize we need more locations," Watkins said simply. "We have a long way to go."
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