After a devastating assault, victims often go to their local hospitals, where the necessary rape exam is not available. The trip to another hospital heaps inconvenience onto an emotional and invasive exam process that can take up to four hours.
With no hospitals south of the Trinity River offering the exams, advocates fear too many victims would rather go home and try to forget than drive across town for one.
“Would you want to drive 45 minutes to talk to an advocate and get a rape kit done after you’ve already been raped and all you want to do is take a shower?” rape survivor and victims advocate Courtney Underwood Newsome said. The Dallas Morning News does not generally name victims of sex crimes unless they agree to be identified.
Only Parkland Memorial Hospital and Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas — both north of downtown Dallas — give rape exams to adults. Other hospitals offer a variety of reasons they don’t provide the exams. Some don’t want the added responsibility and cost. Others have gone along with an effort to centralize the service to only highly trained and experienced examiners.
Experts say it’s not necessary for every hospital in Dallas County to offer rape exams. But Underwood Newsome has led a push to expand the number of locations. She’s made that a top priority in her new job at Safer Dallas Better Dallas, a nonprofit that works to reduce crime in Dallas.
Dallas police sexual assault commander Sgt. Patrick Welsh said he supports the effort.
“If one survivor decides not to get the examination done based on convenience and travel time, then we’re losing her in the system,” he said. “We’ll lose in the long run by not being able to pursue these cases and hold offenders accountable.”
In 2011, an estimated 600 forcible rapes were reported in Dallas County, based on FBI figures for cities with populations of more than 100,000.
A frustrating search
In August 2011, Nicole Anderson stayed after work one night to have a drink with co-workers. When she didn’t come home and didn’t answer her phone, her husband and sister worried.
Linda Anderson, Nicole’s sister, used a phone app to locate Nicole at her office in Oak Cliff. Linda drove there and walked in on a horrific scene. Nicole lay face down on the bathroom floor. A male co-worker had pulled up her turquoise dress and hovered behind her.
Linda called the police. Her sister appeared to have been drugged and couldn’t remember what had happened to her. When the police arrived, they didn’t direct the sisters to the hospital for a rape exam because Nicole couldn’t say she had been assaulted.
Linda and Nicole drove to Arlington, where they lived. They went to two different hospitals there, but neither could offer a rape exam. Linda remembers thinking, “How are they not prepared for that? Where else are you supposed to go?” Finally, she was told to go to Parkland in Dallas.
By the time Nicole got the rape exam, the sisters had been to three hospitals and driven nearly 50 miles. Five hours had passed since Linda found her sister.
Nicole, now 33, may never know for sure what happened that night because it took so long to get her rape exam, which included a test for drugs in her system.
“With the date rape drug, that goes out of your system so fast. If we’re looking at a five-hour difference in time, that’s a big deal,” said Nicole, whose case is scheduled for trial next month.
She believes more hospitals need to offer the exams. “Before this happened, I would have thought that you could go to any hospital to have that done,” Nicole said. “You need to be able to go somewhere — anywhere — to get checked out.”
It’s not known how many victims have experiences like Nicole’s — or how many give up and go home. But Underwood Newsome believes the number is significant given that two out of three rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Nationally, it’s not unusual for major cities to have just a few locations that offer sexual assault exams. In Austin, victims are all sent to one hospital. In Houston, trained nurses travel to certain hospitals to perform the exams. Here in Dallas, the choices are Parkland or Presbyterian.
Experts say these referral systems allow victims to be treated by the most experienced examiners, which helps ensure the exams will be admissible in court. But this also creates an issue of convenience. Some say the thought of driving across Dallas County to get an exam may be enough to stop victims from getting one at all.
Underwood Newsome said Dallas County needs more hospitals performing rape kits because of its size. She aims to create several more locations while maintaining the quality at each one.
“It will be the best of the best, but it will also be the best of the best in every single neighborhood,” she said.
Welsh, the Dallas police commander, said there should be a hospital performing rape exams in each part of the county. If too many hospitals offer rape exams, he said, it increases the chance that evidence could become lost or contaminated. “There needs to be control,” he said.
When rape exams are done correctly, they can be a key piece of evidence in prosecutions. DNA from the exam can identify a suspect and signs of injury can show force was used, Dallas County prosecutor Kendall Castello said.
“It’s great evidence. It’s evidence that we certainly would like,” Castello said. But he added, “Our best source of evidence is the brave woman who is willing to stand up and say she was sexually assaulted.”
Gaps in the system
For years, Parkland was the only hospital in Dallas County to offer rape exams. When Presbyterian started its program in 2010, northern Dallas County residents had a closer place to go for the exams. But Underwood Newsome knows there is still work to be done in other areas of the county.
South Dallas and Duncanville, DeSoto and Lancaster all lack hospitals that offer rape exams. Presbyterian has treated a few clients from Duncanville — and some from as far away as Ellis County. But most clients come from northern Dallas County, the Presbyterian program’s supervisor said.
So where are rape victims from the southern sector of Dallas County going for their exams?
“Most of the times, they’re not doing anything. They’re remaining silent,” said Gwendolyn Jones, founder of ARISE! International, a support group for sexual assault victims in that area.
Underwood Newsome is considering several additional locations, including Methodist Dallas Medical Center in Oak Cliff, Methodist Charlton in southern Dallas, Methodist Richardson and Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas. She’s still in the planning phase but would like to see another location up and running within a year.
Underwood Newsome hopes expanding the service will send a message to sexual assault victims: “You matter. And you have a voice.”