Guest Post: Taking a Holistic Approach to Ending Houston's Backlog

Today's guest post comes from two members of the multi-disciplinary team responsible for researching and addressing the rape kit backlog in Houston: Dr. William Wells, Professor at Sam Houston State University, and Emily Burton-Blank, Justice Advocate at the Houston Police Department. They share the steps they took to end its backlog and the lessons learned along the way.  

A decade ago, the Houston Police Department looked at ways to improve the tracking, analysis and storage of crime-related property (including sexual assault kits). Shortly after, the Houston Police Department’s Crime Lab began to seek grants for small batches of sexual assault kits to be tested. While the grants enabled the Department to move towards testing of more kits, the Department and Crime Lab recognized that a wide-scale solution would need to be implemented. A multi-disciplinary team of professionals in the sexual assault field was convened. In 2011, the Houston Police Department, along with this multi-disciplinary team, was awarded a grant through the National Institute of Justice to undertake research and launch reforms. In 2013, the City of Houston supplemented the funding in order to achieve the goal to test all remaining sexual assault kits. The multi-disciplinary team continues its collaborative work today, and will continue the initiative once the NIJ funding has concluded. 

Our work in Houston is known as “action-research,” and some key features set it apart from other models. We believe this is a powerful approach that can be used effectively in other jurisdictions seeking to improve responses to sexual assault. First, a diverse group of stakeholders collaborates on many aspects of the project, such as examining the problem through multiple lenses, collecting and analyzing data and recommending and implementing reforms. The stakeholders on our group represent victim advocates, medical professionals, crime lab and property room personnel, criminal investigators, prosecutors and researchers. Second, we have been learning about many aspects related to sexual assault within our local context, so we can develop reforms that can be put into practice and have a good chance of succeeding. We believe these two features set the stage for what has become and continues to be a successful project. The combination of a multi-disciplinary working group made of committed individuals and a smart approach to problem solving is a recipe for success.

The project never focused exclusively on HPD property room or crime lab procedures. We started with the assumption that we would examine many different aspects of the local sexual assault response system that included investigators, prosecutors, community- and system-based victim advocates, sexual assault nurse examiners, and researchers. This meant our project would take a larger, more holistic approach, and include developing best practices for handling cold cases with previously untested sexual assault kits, as well as improving responses in current sexual assault cases. This introduced complexities because it meant our project had to tackle many important and tough questions involving testing and prioritizing sexual assault kits; determining which cold cases would be re-opened, how they would be investigated, if and how victims would be notified of such activity; how to improve relationships between investigators and advocates; and how to strengthen current systems responding to sexual assault. 

As a result of our broad approach many reforms have taken place that do not involve the crime lab at all. We believe these reforms materialized, in no small part, because of the consistent meetings and conference calls between members of our working group and findings from our data collection and analysis efforts.  

One particularly noteworthy reform has been the creation of an advocate position housed within the adult Sex Crimes Unit that responds to survivors of sexual assault. The working group learned, through informal conversations and systematic data collection that many investigators did not frequently collaborate with advocates during their investigations. However, academic literature tells us many positive results may occur when advocates are readily available to victims, including the time victims are navigating the criminal justice process. Following careful discussions and planning within the working group, HPD decided to create the new Justice Advocate position. The data we collected also identified some potential barriers that could inhibit collaboration, which allowed for HPD personnel to address these obstacles when they designed the position, including the job description and protocols. As the advocate in this new position, I (Emily Burton-Blank), have been involved with notification in cold cases, and I am also involved in working with survivors in current cases. There have already been many indications that this new position is a success, but a formal evaluation of the position is underway. The results of our evaluation will be used to make changes to protocols and to my responsibilities.

Another program launched as a result of research findings and careful group planning was the Sexual Assault Information Line and Email. This provides an opportunity for survivors, who previously reported a sexual assault to HPD but may not know what happened in their case, to seek answers. The Line will be staffed by the Justice Advocate, along with a few other trained responders, during the work day. The Sexual Assault Information Line can be contacted at 713.308.1400 or SAinfo@houstonpolice.org.  

Police departments across the country continue to discover that they possess sexual assault kits that have never been submitted to a crime lab for analysis. Through our work in Houston, we have learned many lessons about the nature of this problem. One lesson is that a problem-solving approach that involves multiple stakeholder groups can be very effective. A second important lesson is that the problem of unsubmitted sexual assault kits is not something solely within the domain of a crime lab or property room. Many parts of the local system are affected. For example, when a crime lab tests evidence in a large number of previously untested sexual assault kits, the workload flows downstream to investigators, prosecutors and advocates. Additionally, it is widely noted that sexual assault is a drastically under reported crime. It is believed that as law enforcement, advocates, and prosecutors demonstrate to the community that a sexual assault report will be believed and respected, it can be assumed that reports—current and delayed reports—will increase. Jurisdictions must be prepared for this added workload. We believe a holistic approach to the problem is warranted.

- By Dr. William Wells and Emily Burton-Blank, February 21, 2014

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