For Lavinia Masters, there would always be a distinct before and after the night of July 31, 1985. As her family lay sleeping at their home in Dallas, the 13-year-old was raped by a home intruder. The perpetrator held a knife to her throat and said he would kill her parents if she said anything.
Despite her fears, Masters went to the hospital and got a forensic evidence exam that includes taking samples of DNA, often referred to as a rape kit. That kit would sit on a shelf for 21 years — long past Texas’s statute of limitations. In 2005, when Masters learned about what happened to her kit, law enforcement also told her that the perpetrator had gone on to rape two more women.
Since that day, Masters has been working to change the laws in Texas surrounding the rape kit backlog, now culminating in a new law with her name. House Bill 8, or the Lavinia Masters Act, prevents kits from being destroyed for at least 40 years, calls for a statewide audit of kits in the backlog and dedicates $50 million to ensuring that evidence is tested in a timely manner. Meanwhile, a new online tracking system is being put in place to prevent recent kits from accumulating untested. Horror stories of rape kits left untouched have haunted both prosecutors and survivors of sexual violence for about as long as the DNA procedure has existed. And now, thanks in large part to years of hard work by Masters, Texas has become the latest state to tackle the backlog while using technology to make sure it does not form again in the future.
“These are not trinkets. They’re not decorations. These are our lives,” Masters said of the kits.
The rape kit backlog is a nationwide problem, resulting from a combination of a lack of resources, confusion around protocol and sometimes a lack of motivation among law enforcement to pursue rape cases. Testing a single rape kit can cost upward of $1,000, and many counties lack the funding or personnel to test those kits. In Texas alone, a 2011 audit revealed nearly 20,000 untested rape kits. In more than 800 cases in Austin, the exteriors of the untested kits had grown mold.
Now, Texas is putting into place an online system to track rape kits, launching this fall. The software is called “Track-Kit” and is under various stages of implementation in four other states (Michigan, Washington, Arizona and Nevada). Put in place by a piece of 2017 legislation, the system has been successfully tested in a trial period in five cities across Texas, and starting September 1, all rape kits will be run through this system. Using the online software, survivors can follow their kit from when it is collected at the hospital, to when it’s sent to a crime lab, throughout the entire process until the testing is completed. Law enforcement and hospital administrators will also be able to track the kits online.
The system is designed with survivors’ anonymity and protection in mind — each rape kit is identified by a bar code, containing no personal details about a survivor. The exit button in the online system even redirects users to a page that details how to clear their browsing history, an added level of security aimed at protecting survivors’ identities even if they are using a public computer.
“It adds another level of transparency to what a lot of great groups across the state were already doing. So for the first time a sexual assault survivor will be able to — if he or she chooses to do so — log in to a system 24/7/365 and see exactly where their sexual assault kit is,” Rebbeca Vieh, the project coordinator from the Texas Department of Public Safety, said.
The tracking software will only apply to new rape kits, not kits already in the backlog. A number of Texas laws enacted since 2011 have been separately aimed at clearing the backlog by infusing several million dollars into the criminal justice system to test old kits. And now the Lavinia Masters Act, signed into law in June, will add an additional injection of funds to train more crime lab technicians and to expand access to sexual assault nurse examiners in underserved communities.
Texas is just the latest state that has looked to tackle the problem of the rape kit backlog. States such as New York and Hawaii have recently allocated more time and resources to pursuing these older cases and have produced strong results showing how clearing the backlog can lead to immediate convictions. The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office dedicated $38 million to pursue untested rape kits in grants that began to be distributed in 2015. Since then — in less than four years — clearing that backlog has resulted in 165 prosecutions and more than 60 convictions, the New York Times reported in March.
States around the country, including Texas, still have a long way to go when it comes to doing right by survivors of sexual assault. Nonprofits like the local Survivor Justice Project have been quick to point out that the backlog of rape kits is not the only way in which the criminal justice system fails survivors. For Masters, however, this latest development is a big step in the right direction — and a potent symbol of what survivors can do to change a system that failed them.