‘We believe survivors’: Travis County says changes coming to sexual assault case handling

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Travis County says it’s set to make big changes in how sexual assault cases are handled, saying survivors of assault will always be the priority in investigations.

On Tuesday, Travis County officials announced a $580,000 settlement with 14 women who’ve spent years in a legal battle with the county and City of Austin.

Travis County Judge Andy Brown said during Tuesday’s press conference announcing the settlement: “In Travis County, we believe survivors. We respect survivors, and we are here for them.”

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea added, “The days of people who have experienced sexual assault not being believed or being treated badly when they come forward and file charges are over.”

$250,000 of the money will go toward several policy changes within the District Attorney’s Office.

District Attorney José Garza said as part of those policy changes, his office will:

  • Begin notifying survivors any time there is a significant update to their cases
  • Regularly release data to the public about how sex assault cases are being handled
  • Put every one of its staff members through special training, so they’re qualified to work with sexual assault survivors in a trauma-informed way
  • Work closely with the women involved in the settlement to make sure the county is upholding high standards for handling future sexual assault cases

$280,000 from the settlement will go directly to the 14 survivors. They will each receive $20,000. The remaining $50,000 the county is paying out will go toward attorney fees.

Three of the women originally filed suit in 2018 for the way the Travis County District Attorney’s Office and the Austin Police Department handled their cases. Others joined their case over time.

Their lawsuit blames understaffing in APD’s Sex Crimes Unit, a lack of thorough investigating, and a culture that discriminates against the women telling their stories — who often feel they aren’t believed or taken seriously.

The women were in the process of appealing their case before Tuesday’s announcement. They plan to continue the appeals process in their fight against the City of Austin. Their next appeals hearing is July 21.

“There’s problems throughout the entire process, from how survivors are interviewed from the moment that they come forward, the questioning that occurs, to the training of the police staff, to how the sex crime scene is staffed, just from a budgetary perspective, all the way through to how thorough the investigation is, whether they’re showing up on-site of the crime site or not,” said one of the plaintiffs who survived rape, Hannah Senko. “So really, it’s a holistic revamp in my mind that needs to occur within the APD system.”

Austin City Council Member Greg Casar is pushing the city to make those changes.

“We should apologize for the failures that have occurred,” Casar said Tuesday. “We should enact reforms, and then we should also settle the lawsuit.”

Casar said following the county’s announcement of a settlement, the city’s legal team told him it plans to reopen its own settlement discussions with the women.

“The survivors in this case have really led the way, and they shouldn’t have to ask for basic justice,” Casar said. “But, I appreciate so much that they have done that. That’s hard to do, on top of what they’ve already gone through.”

APD told KXAN in response to Tuesday’s press conference it’s already implemented several changes to improve its investigation of sexual assault cases. Those include allowing third parties and victim services counselors to sit in on interviews with survivors, developing protocol to better inform survivors of progress on their cases and creating a “soft interview room” for survivors.

The police department also added staff members to its sex crimes unit and enhanced training for cadets and detectives. Additionally, Interim Police Chief Joseph Chacon has rejoined the Sexual Assault Response and Resource Team (SARRT), a multi-agency group that works to enhance the local response to sex crimes.

APD also updated its policy to reflect a state law passed in 2019 that requires the department to analyze each sexual assault kit it receives within 90 days of receipt and to upload the completed analysis into the CODIS database with 30 days of completion.

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