City Acknowledges Its Debt to Sexual Assault Victims: Seen and Heard – News


Seen and Heard: Council Member Greg Casar, Hanna Senko, Council Member Alison Alter, Marina Conner, Mary Reyes, Heather Sin, Kristen Troken and Angela in front of City Hall (Photo provided by Sarah Marloff)

“We should all be sorry, as I am, that you had to endure post-traumatic and that our system did not resolve these issues on our own and that the burden falls on you, in large part, to correct what is happening. passed “, the mayor Steve Adler said on January 27 municipal Council Encounter. “Please know that you have made this city a better city. There is still a long way to go, but you have put us on a better path.”

With those words, and then a unanimous vote from the Council, the ongoing legal battle between 15 female rape victims and the city of Austin came to an end.

“I feel like we’ve accomplished a lot” Hanna Senko say it the Chronicle. The class action lawsuit filed in 2018, alleging local law enforcement mishandled survivors’ cases so badly that they violated their constitutional rights, led to changes in policies and practices within the Austin Police Department and speak Travis County District Attorney, and influenced the passage of statewide legislation in 2019, Senko noted. “The last two years have been incredibly difficult at times and incredibly rewarding at other times. At the end of the day, I want to believe it was worth it.”

Another survivor-seeker, Heather Sin, said that we probably won’t know for a while if joining the suit was worth it. “Unfortunately, the police track record makes me skeptical,” she said, noting that during settlement talks she had to continually push for disability-related training modules to be added. “I admit my own skepticism, maybe even my bias, but I continue to work to give them the opportunity to change. I want to believe that the police can be different, but it will take us all to have an impact on that .”

For an hour, Council members individually thanked the plaintiffs for their work. With deadlines suspended, Senko took the floor, as did Marina Conner and Mary Reyes, known as “Amy Smith”, the lead plaintiff in the federal lawsuit. Notoriously botched DNA testing of Reyes’ rape kit helped shut down APD forensic laboratory in 2016.

District Attorney jose garza, whose two predecessors were named as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, spoke in favor of the survivors and the settlement. assistant DA Dana Nelson shared statements of Erin Martinson, director of the DA’s Special Victims Unit, and Neva Fernandez, who leads the office’s new Victim Services Division. Although he did not speak, the APD confirmed that the police chief Joseph Chacon, of which the two predecessors were also applicants, was virtually present. In a statement to the ChronicleAPD said it is “committed to making improvements, and [has] already made many significant changes to our policy to provide the best care and services to survivors of sexual assault. »

In an interview, Council member Greg Casar called the meeting “a more significant moment than any of us expected.” Since the 2016 budget deliberations, Casar has pushed back against ODA for trying to dismiss the backlog of untested rape kits as “making mountains of molehills.” At his last Council meeting on February 3, he called the settlement “almost like a parting moment for me.” One of his goals, before stepping down to run for Congress, was to settle the lawsuit; Casar and CM Alison Alter led the Council to seek justice for the survivors.

The initial class action lawsuit was filed by three women in June 2018, with five more joining in August; their cases span the decade from 2008 to 2018. In February 2020, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel dismissed the bulk of the lawsuit, saying the case involved state policy (citing the 2019 bills ) and belonged to the state court. In September, four more women, led by Senko – whose case dates back to 2006 – duly filed a court version of the lawsuit, again detailing their assaults and the local court system’s trauma prosecution.

In June 2021 – just a few days before the 5th United States Circuit Court of Appeals heard the appeal of survivors-plaintiffs of Yeakel’s decision – the county settled under DA Garza. At least two women, not publicly identified, signed the lawsuit against Austin and APD afterwards; now the city, too, has settled – offering a formal apology to the plaintiffs, who will each receive $55,000.

So far, $3.5 million has been spent to address issues cited in the survivors’ lawsuit. This includes eliminating the city’s backlog of rape kits; the establishment of the APD Sexual Assault Cold Case Unit; hire additional victim services counsellors; and demanding police academy training on better handling rape cases. The APD is now legally required to collect an official statement from each survivor who wishes to make one, before closing a rape case. Additionally, an audit (sponsored by Alter) of the APD’s handling of sexual assault – by the Police Executive Research Forum, Women’s Rights Projectand Wellesley Centers for Women – is expected this spring; its recommendations are a priority. Another $862,000 is reserved for future implementation.

“The past two years have been incredibly difficult at times and incredibly rewarding at other times. At the end of the day, I want to believe it was all worth it. – Hanna Senko

For Conner, the settlement is a victory. “We were heard,” she said. “It’s incredible.” One of the first three plaintiffs, Conner initially asked the Council to help him test the thousands of pending rape kits, including his own, in 2016. “my power,” Conner says. “I was stripped of all my power that night and to stand here today knowing that I have the power to obtain what to me is almost a $5 million lawsuit – because all of this money is being allocated to sexual assault services…which it takes a lot of force, a lot of power and influence to do that.”

Conner’s sentiments are not matched by all of his co-plaintiffs. Kristen Troken, known as “Sarah Jones” in the federal lawsuit, believes that “substantial changes have been promised and put on paper, but actions speak louder than words,” she wrote via email. . “I want to see action.”

Likewise, Senko is torn. “Even though we have achieved so much already, the fact that we have had to fight as long and as hard as we have only goes to show how much work remains to be done in this space.” Senko continues, “I believe the City Council was sincere in its remarks when it voted to settle our case, however, I also recognize that it takes much more than sincerity to ensure this issue remains a priority. .” She hopes the settlement will keep things on track.

For Reyes, whose case has continued on and off for a decade, “closure” is not the correct word. “I feel like the recognition we received from the Council and the difficult conversation that took place provided me with a space to take bigger steps towards healing,” she said. . Ahead of Thursday’s vote, Reyes publicly pardoned the Council.

She experiences mixed emotions about the installation. “I’m relieved it’s one less thing to wake up and worry about, but it raised a lot of unresolved questions: Have we come far enough? Was it worth it? Was it enough?” Yet, when asked if she would do it again, she said, without a doubt, yes. “I had to make sense of my pain. She had to belong somewhere. What I did not anticipate was the extent of its systemic and emotional effects on members of the community.”

Jennifer Ecklund, an attorney for the plaintiffs, called the settlement a “measure of justice.” Highlighting the various changes to the ODA and the prosecutor’s office, Ecklund said: “The women who brought these lawsuits have finally been recognized and heard, and can rest easy knowing that their cases and their courage have made a difference. .” Ecklund applauded Austin and Travis County’s “willingness to improve their broken systems” and reiterated his support for the plaintiffs “for showing the world that light can come from darkness and that change is possible.”

However, a feeling of “destabilize” remains. As Senko noted, “It doesn’t matter what laws or policies are in place, if the leaders bound to enforce them don’t believe in them, support them, or care to enforce them.” As his final days on the Council approach, Casar credits survivor-complainants with making him a better Council member and said their work is “proof of what movements can do.”

“What survivors have done through the settlement is set a higher standard – that doesn’t mean it’s over. But it’s proof that while elected officials, the press and leaders communities are willing to listen instead of dismissing claims of injustice from people who are hurt, that we can actually change as a city.”

Sin, whose attack took place in 2014, does not know the status of his case. Her rape kit was not tested until the lawsuit was filed in 2018; it has not received any updates since. “It’s troubling that we have to legally compel this institution to do what it was supposed to do all along, but it’s uplifting to think that a world like this could exist in my lifetime,” Sin said.

Reyes shares this hope: “There is an opportunity to become a model city… When we start owning, we set a tone, a standard and an operating procedure for navigating the trauma surrounding sexual assault. the ultimate impact of this work. . This is how accountability breeds more accountability.”

The 15 women will continue to monitor the city’s efforts to ensure the terms of the settlement are implemented. “We set them up to be successful,” Conner said, adding, “If they get it wrong, we’ll be right back there, holding them accountable like we did.”

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