One night in July 1985, Lavinia Masters, then 13 years old, was violently raped in her home by a stranger.
After reporting the case to the police, she went through an invasive exam to collect evidence for a rape kit, but it sat on a shelf for more than 21 years, denying her the justice she wanted.
“I was forgotten about,” said Masters, now an advocate for rape victims. “That’s how I felt, like nobody cared about me, nobody cared about what happened to a child in the state of Texas.”
“I don’t want anybody to ever have to go through that again, yet they still do,” she added.
On Friday, Masters joined state Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, and former state senator and gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis in downtown Dallas, where they announced an online crowdfunding campaign to help clear the state’s backlog of untested rape kits.
“Every day, there is a woman, a man, a child, in communities all across our state who are victimized by predators, and many of these assaults and rape go unreported,” Neave said. “So when we have a survivor who is willing to come forward and speak with law enforcement and undergo what is a very invasive, four- to six-hour sexual assault exam to collect evidence, and to have that evidence sitting untested, sometimes for years, is absolutely unacceptable.”
During last year’s legislative session, Neave sponsored House Bill 1729and House Bill 4102, which allow Texans to help the cause by donating $1 or more when applying for and renewing driver’s licenses and other personal identification documents.
All funding goes toward a grant program administered by the Criminal Justice Division of the governor’s office, and counties and law enforcement agencies will soon be able to submit proposals for the funding. It must be used to run forensic tests on evidence in sexual assault cases.
The grant program officially kicked off in January, and so far, the state has received nearly $240,000 in donations from more than 85,000 Texans, Neave said.
There’s no way to know how many rape kits remain untested throughout the state, though the Texas Department of Public Safety has reported that the backlog sits at 4,841. The Dallas Police Department has reported a backlog of 2,020 kits, Neave said.
That’s because the number isn’t comprehensive, and DPS can only release the number of kits that have been turned over to the agency and of kits reported by local law enforcement groups.
Since 2011, Texas has required law enforcement agencies to test sexual assault evidence kits within 30 days, thanks to legislation Davis sponsored when she was a state senator. When the measure took effect, the number of untested rape kits sat at about 20,000, though the number was probably a lot higher, the women said Friday.
“This problem is a lot bigger than we thought,” Neave said.
In April, Neave helped launch a Dallas-based sexual violence task force, with local enforcement members, sexual assault victims and other stakeholders in the community. The group focuses on finding legislative solutions to chip away at the state’s backlog.
When the next legislative session convenes in January, Neave said, she plans to file a comprehensive bill that addresses findings from the task force. These include improving data collection and ensuring justice for those raped on college campuses.
“We shouldn’t have to be coming to our fellow Texans in order to contribute and fund the backlog of thousands of untested rape kits in our state. Our state should be fully funding this issue,” Neave said. “The fact of the matter is that it’s not fully funding this issue.”