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Travis County Forms New Group To Help Sexual Assault Survivors. But It Already Has One.

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon
Kelly White of SAFE Alliance and former state Sen. Wendy Davis at a press conference announcing the Sexual Assault Prevention and Healing Work Group on Tuesday.

A new group that aims to improve the response to sexual assaults in Austin and Travis County was announced yesterday. Its formation comes after public concern over how investigations have been handled. But that concern isn't new: There has been a group in place for nearly three decades tackling these issues, and the work hasn't been easy. 

What's Been Done So Far

In 1992, the Austin/Travis County Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team – a group made up of law enforcement, advocates and others – was created to improve the response to sexual assaults. Former state Sen. Wendy Davis, who will lead up the new work group, cited SARRT's work at the announcement yesterday.

“It’s my intention to speak to as many people as I possibly can – the SARRT particularly,” Davis said, when asked whom her group would consult with. “Those who have been working much longer than I have at the local level.”

More recently, SARRT led a campaign in 2013 to boost the number of nurses able to perform sexual assault exams in Travis County. While a statelaw required all hospitals to provide these exams, only one in Travis did. That meant survivors had only one hospital to go to and it often overcharged, says former SARRT co-chair Emily LeBlanc.

SARRT partnered to open Eloise House, a 24-hour clinic focused solely on survivors. The clinic, which provides free exams, served 630 survivors in 2017 alone.

In 2015 and 2016, SARRT secured federal money to expand counseling services and prosecutions. The two grants totaled more than $1.5 million and led to the hiring of a specialized sexual assault victim counselor, prosecutor and office specialist at the Travis County District Attorney’s office.

The money also provided SARRT with the resources to conduct research on how sexual assaults are handled in Travis County

Splitting Up

In 2017, District Attorney Margaret Moore broke away from the SARRT and created her own organization, the Inter-agency Sexual Assault Team (ISAT). She said its goal is to better train law enforcement officers on how to support sexual assault victims.

“There was not as a robust participation in SARRT by law enforcement,” Moore told KUT. “I think the SARRT, that exists in Travis County today, needs to figure out what it is and what it is trying to accomplish because their work product, if you will, has been of limited value.”

Some members of the SARRT are unhappy with the district attorney's departure and say Moore left because SARRT was critical of how she was handling sexual assault cases.

In 2017, a letter condemning the actions of the DAwas made public. In it, former SARRT co-chairs Dana Nelson and LeBlanc argue that a rape kit backlog in the county was merely a symptom and “the disease is a system that condones rape and does not hold perpetrators, or itself, accountable.” The letter also calls out Moore directly, saying that although she was "a member of the work group, she does not represent victims.”

Since Moore split with the SARRT, Austin police officers have stopped attending those meetings and have focused their efforts solely on ISAT. Members of SARRT argue that this fissure does not help victims.

When asked if the new working group would bring Moore back to the table, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt deflected and said "it’s important for our community to get beyond acronyms."

Moving Forward

Last week, Council Member Alison Alter called for a third-party investigation into how sexual assault cases are handled in Austin. This came after state auditors earlier this month found APD failed to meet federal criteria for the "exceptional clearance" of a rape case in nearly a third of cases it reviewed. Austin Police Chief Brian Manley responded to the findings with his own call for a third-party audit into how it handles sexual assaults. It’s uncertain whether these investigations will overlap.

At yesterday’s press conference, Davis said she hopes to bring all these groups back together.

"I’ve always believed that our best work is done when we set aside disagreements of who ought to be doing it and we come together and we do it collectively," Davis said. "The SARRT has been doing spectacular work and that work ought to be lifted in front of, and at the forefront of, helping to guide our efforts going forward."

Nadia Hamdan is a local news anchor and host for NPR's "Morning Edition" on KUT.
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