Coming Together for Rape Kit Reform in Oklahoma

Danielle Tudor is a survivor and advocate from Oklahoma who has worked on rape kit reform legislation across multiple states. Most recently, she worked with stakeholders in Oklahoma and Governor Mary Fallin on an Executive Order establishing a task force to conduct a statewide audit of untested kits. Here, Danielle shares her experience collaborating with stakeholders and elected officials, and, as a member of the task force, her hopes for further reform.

Because I am a rape survivor, I see every untested rape kit as more than a cardboard box of evidence. Each untested kit represents a sexual assault victim who trusted law enforcement and the criminal courts to obtain justice. But here in Oklahoma, we don’t even know the number of untested rape kits.

Now, thankfully, this will change. On April 24, 2017, Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin issued an Executive Order establishing the Oklahoma Task Force on Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence, which must conduct a statewide audit of untested rape kits. This means all untested rape kits now collecting dust on storage shelves across our state will be counted, and by the end of 2017, Oklahoma’s Attorney General must have the audit numbers in hand. With this Executive Order, Oklahoma has taken the first major step towards understanding the extent of our state’s rape kit backlog and paving a path for justice.

Like far too many rape survivors, I was denied justice. The man who assaulted me in my own home when I was only 17 will never serve any prison time for raping me, despite the fact that he confessed to the crime. But I have discovered that working to change laws affecting other sexual assault survivors has become an unexpected form of justice for me; my advocacy offers me healing and empowerment I never anticipated.

In the fall of 2016, I moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma to be closer to family. In Oregon, where I was born and raised, I had been a vocal advocate for rape survivors, and I knew I would continue my advocacy in my new home. I started researching what had already been done to address the rape kit backlog. All I could find was a single attempt at passing legislation–a failed effort–and a couple of news articles. But one article highlighted a statistic I couldn’t ignore: Oklahoma tests only one in four rape kits. It's hard to fathom that in Oklahoma, 75 percent of rape kits are not considered to be worth testing.

Just as alarming, according to the Oklahoma Department of Health, the incidence of rape and attempted rape here is 35 to 45 percent higher than the national average. The Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation has found that since 2013, the number of sexual assaults here has steadily increased by 20 percent. What I unearthed was appalling but strengthened my commitment to change.

Even before making the move to Oklahoma, I began to contact state legislators and other stakeholders in law enforcement and criminal justice, telling them my own story and my vision for backlog reform. I was working hard to find a legislator who would champion rape kit reform legislation. Then I met State Senators Kay Floyd and AJ Griffin, who graciously agreed to author the legislation I had in mind and stand up for survivors.

In December, Senator Floyd asked me to form a task force to vet potential legislation. I invited representatives of the District Attorneys Council, the Oklahoma City Police Department, the Tulsa Police Department, the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, and the Oklahoma Attorney General’s office. It was amazing to have everyone agree to join.

This task force was successful because everyone was so open to candid dialogue. We were willing to be educated. We listened to one another’s viewpoints and respected each other’s opinions. We collaborated and came up with a bill that worked for everyone. As new members join what is now the Oklahoma Task Force on Sexual Assault Evidence, this quality will remain key to our future success.

Senator Floyd entrusted the task force with the task of drafting the audit bill. I’m not exaggerating when I say our end product, Senate Bill 654, which would establish a task force to audit the untested kits, contains a piece of my heart and soul. Taking this first step toward justice for so many sexual assault survivors in my state felt like a sacred trust.

Senator Floyd launched conversations with Governor Fallin’s office about our bill and how it mandated an ongoing Governor’s Rape Kit Audit Task Force. I believe when Governor Fallin saw the results of our teamwork, it became one of the reasons she turned S.B. 654 into an Executive Order. She has told me how deeply she believes in this issue and how committed she is to help, and she demonstrated her commitment through her actions. Of the over 2,000 bills filed with the Oklahoma State Legislature during the 2017 session, S.B. 654 is the only bill that became an Executive Order.

Danielle and Gov. Fallin. Courtesy of Erin McGregor, Capitol Photographer.

As a survivor, advocate, and member of the Governor’s Task Force, I see a future where progress will mean taking more action. Once we know the number of untested kits in Oklahoma, we will need to plan how to move forward with testing. New policies on how to handle the current and future caseload will be needed, as well policies as addressing the backlogged rape kits that need to be tested. Along with a statewide database to track all rape kits, future legislation should address a variety of issues such as how long rape kits shall be stored, how quickly they must be tested, and how soon the results should be uploaded into state and federal databases. Legislation will also be needed to establish victim rights to notice on updates of the status of a kit and access to information survivors need for their path to healing.

I have been told my goals for rape kit reform in Oklahoma are ambitious, but I am passionate about a future free of sexual violence for my young granddaughter. She often asks me why I have so many meetings and why I go so frequently to the state capitol, Oklahoma City.

I tell her, “Because I am a changemaker for you.”

I don’t look forward to the day when she understands what happened to her Mimi. But I hope I make her proud.

-By Danielle Tudor, May 12, 2017

END THE BACKLOG is an initiative of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.

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