AUSTIN (Nexstar) — A bill to create a sexual assault survivors’ task force in Texas is now law, after receiving a signature from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott.
Much of the focus of the past 5 months at the Texas Capitol was public education, property taxes, and Hurricane Harvey. But legislation to help sexual assault survivors also took priority for lawmakers.
House Bill 1590 creates the task force, which will coordinate resources and develop best practices for sexual assault prevention, investigation and prosecution. It will likely cost Texas more than $1 million according to a state analysis.
“This session was one of the most prolific sessions we’ve ever had when it comes to addressing sexual assault and human trafficking,” Abbott said at a bill signing ceremony. “This will ensure that Texas is both efficiently and effectively taking action to address the heinous crime of sexual assault.”
The lawmakers who spearheaded the legislation in both chambers emphasized it is “survivor-centered” from forensic collection to prosecution of the case.
“There are some infrastructure issues that are impacting the ability of the justice system to work,” State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, said. “We need more training throughout that whole timeline to make sure that those who are interacting with survivors have the skills they need to work with those folks.”
“We have a very low rate of reporting sexual assault and part of the reason for that is a lack of a sense of trust that the system is going to be there for them,” Howard said.
As they hope to bridge gaps in resources for survivors at the statewide level, the task force will also narrow in on local needs, including child survivors.
“We need to make sure that we are making adequate investments in those areas within our law enforcement jurisdictions at the local level to ensure that we have enough resources to go out there and address the actual crime so that it does not become a further public safety issue,” Christina Green, with the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas, said.
The organization serves more than 58,000 child victims of crime every year. According to Green, 70 percent of those are sexual assault cases. The group, which has 71 centers across the state, worked with Howard and State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, on the legislation.
“There are over 1,000 children on a waiting list today waiting for mental health services,” Green said. “Both the budget and also this policy measures are going to help us fill those gaps.”
This bill works alongside other legislation passed this session to tackle backlogs of rape kits in Texas.
“How do you achieve justice for survivors? How do you achieve a fair and equitable and time effective result from the entire system,” Peter Stout, president and chief executive officer of the Houston Forensic Science Center, mentioned. “The communication between the various stakeholders, particularly in the adjudication process, is critical in making it happen in a timely fashion.”
The task force will be comprised of representatives from the Governor’s Office, Texas Association Against Sexual Assault and Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas.
The legislature appropriated close to $75 million in funding for forensic labs, Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, audits and tracking of sexual assault kits.
“This session was absolutely unprecedented when it comes to focusing on victims of sexual assault, both child and adult victims,” Green added. “There are so many variables throughout the budget and policy that are going to make this state’s response to sexual assault all the better for both children and adults.”