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Senate tackles backlog of 400,000 untested rape kits

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Finding closure after a rape or sexual assault is a critical part in the healing process.

For some survivors, it comes in the form of knowing their attacker is behind bars, but a nationwide backlog of untested rape kits is leaving many victims wondering when that closure will come.

"If a survivor goes through the trauma of a sexual assault, actually
goes through the process of getting a rape exam, I think the least we can do is test those exams," Annette Burrhus-Clay with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault said.

But for about 400,000 victims across the country—and about 16,000 here in Texas—those rape kits are going untested. Some sit for decades as the same suspects strike again.

Those statistics need to change for the sake of both the victim and police, Burrhus-Clay said.

"From our perspective, they may get a hit from another case, and it might basically substantiate other claims as well," she said.

That's why Republican Senator John Cornyn, along with other lawmakers, are pushing for what they call the SAFER Act, or the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry.

Right now under the Debbie Smith Act of 2004, eligible municipalities receive federal dollars to work on the backlog, but only about 40 percent of the funding is required to go toward testing the rape kits. The SAFER Act boosts the amount on rape kit tests from 40 to 75 percent.

"We'll embrace any resources that can be used in helping solve any types of cases," Austin Police Department spokesperson Veneza Bremner said.

According to Bremner, APD doesn't suffer from the backlog problem. However, the department knows the importance of DNA evidence and that extra resources for police departments nationwide is critical, especially when processing and analyzing such a kit can cost about 1,000 dollars.

"It's very hard to get a rape survivor to actually want to go through a rape exam if they feel like, 'I went through this process and it's not going anywhere,'" Burrhus-Clay said.

Thursday, senators on Capitol Hill decided to move forward with the Act. It now goes to another committee.

State lawmakers have also tried to address the problem. A law went into effect in September to audit the backlog of untested kits. It also requires law enforcement to more quickly test newly collected kits, provided the funds are available.

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