Austin budget request aims to better support survivors of sexual assault

Backlog of untested rape kits at Austin Police Headquarters in 2015. (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Some city council members are pushing for more resources for sexual assault survivors in this year’s budget, following a recommendation from the Austin Commission for Women. They say police need more victim services counselors after cuts over the last decade and additional training is needed.

As survivors are left waiting for justice in the midst of a major rape kit backlog, one tells KXAN the professional help made all the difference for her.

“As a sexual assault survivor, I did not get my DNA results back for 745 days due to the backlog and over that year and a half I really struggled to find adequate therapy and counseling,” Marina Conner said, standing on the University of Texas campus. It’s a place she wasn’t sure she’d come back to. In that year and a half, Conner dropped out of school, struggling with PTSD.

“I had a stranger assault me in a parking garage and it just completely takes your sense of self from you,” she said.

After 745 days spent waiting for justice, two weeks ago, Conner got her answer. The district attorney would not be taking up her case. Not enough evidence.

“It is completely just as traumatizing, almost as traumatizing as the rape itself to receive that phone call that you aren’t going to get justice,” Conner said. “That was just two weeks ago that I found out that my rapist was going to walk free, just like many other rapists. And without my counselor, I don’t believe I’d be standing here in the mental state that I am today.”

That counselor was trained to provide trauma therapy the city’s Commission for Women is pushing to expand. Council members Greg Casar and Alison Alter introduced an item to the concept menu, additions to the budget city council will consider, that supports sexual assault therapist training through a one-time appropriation of $50,000.

Another item Council Member Ann Kitchen put forward would add five full time positions to APD’s Victims Services Division. This would be an annual appropriation of $425,359.

Three would be assigned to work sexual assault cases and two would work for the crisis response team. The Commission for Women says each new counselor can provide services to 350-400 victims. Counselors must have a master’s degree in the mental health field and at least two year’s experience in crisis and trauma. Training to be an Austin police counselor takes about two months and includes two weeks with the crisis team.

“In the past 15 years, they’ve lost 10 counselors and currently they only have three full time counselors that are handling specifically sex crimes,” Commission for Women Chair Sarah Tober said. “To only have three counselors available for 25-30 new cases a month, much less added on to the backlog of rape kits and sex crime cases that are still being handled through the DNA lab closure — it’s a mountain.”

Conner told KXAN without the therapy, “I would not have been able to come to class that first day of school. And so I believe that it’s something the city really needs to push for because a lot of rape victims don’t know about this therapy.”

City Council will discuss this budget request, along with others council members have brought forward, during its meeting on Thursday.

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