Plenty of effort goes into creating sustained improvement for some of Dallas’ poorest and most crime-ridden neighborhoods.
But often, the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing when it comes to fighting crime, building decent homes or helping people change their lives.
On Tuesday, the Dallas Police Department and four groups focused on improving impoverished areas announced the formation of an umbrella organization known as EPIC Dallas that will help coordinate certain activities and fundraising.
Led by Toni Brinker, widow of Dallas businessman Norman Brinker, the effort includes Mayor Mike Rawlings’ GrowSouth program, Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity, Safer Dallas Better Dallas, and the Communities Foundation of Texas.
“EPIC is taking four notable and proven organizations, and by aligning their work and priorities it capitalizes on leverage opportunities to make a greater impact on this city in a much shorter amount of time,” said Brent Christopher, president and chief executive of the Communities Foundation.
To kick off the formation of EPIC, Better Dallas Safer Dallas gave Police Chief David Brown a $300,000 donation for targeting crime hot spots at Vickery Meadows and Ross and Bennett avenues.
Brown praised the plan for EPIC, an acronym for Economic Partners Investing in Communities.
“I can hear the cynicism from some that this is just a pipe dream, that we can’t get this done in Dallas,” Brown said.
Economic development is the best way to fight crime, Brown said.
EPIC Dallas has created a board that will study the work of the member organizations. Where that work overlaps, EPIC will help coordinate it and raise funds to support it.
Brinker said that will strengthen all of the groups’ efforts.
“We emphatically believe in the power of collaboration,” she said.
Sorority members at Southern Methodist University are fighting back against the odds of becoming a victim of sexual assault.
The PanHellenic Council teamed up with a local martial arts expert for an hour-long self-defense class at Burleson Park.
In October, following five reported cases of sexual assaults, SMU’s president appointed a task force to look at how the university deals with sexual misconduct.
Courtney Underwood Newsome heads the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. She thinks self-defense training is a good idea as long as the perspective on victims’ rights is not lost.
There are eight active sororities on the SMU campus. Members from each took part in the classes.
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.”
Thanks to a new system, crimes that might have gone unreported are being prosecuted.
One morning a few years ago, Julie walked into Baylor Medical Center at Garland. It was 3:50 am. She had been sexually assaulted. Eventually, Julie (not her real name) was led to an exam room where, she assumed, a doctor or nurse would collect physical evidence with something called a rape kit. This is standard procedure. Instead, the nurse who came to see her had surprising news.
“She explained to me that they don’t have the means to provide care for me there, that they would have to transport me to Parkland,” says Julie, now 29. Only Parkland, she was told, had rape kits and the staff trained to use them.
SMU Grad’s Crusade for Rape Victims
Garland Police filed a report, and she was taken by ambulance to Parkland. Records show she arrived at 6:23 am and was triaged to the Obstetrics & Gynecology Intermediate Care Center (ICC), where female sexual assault victims are seen. The victim advocate from the hospital’s Victim Intervention Program/Rape Crisis Center (VIP) was kind and compassionate, Julie says, but she waited several hours for a doctor to see her.
One of the staff told her, “You have to understand we only have one doctor available to do this exam, and she is tending to other patients. She will see you in between patients.” In a final insult, Julie says the doctor who performed the exam said to the attending nurse, “Why do all the girls these days shave down there?”
She was finally discharged at 12:26 pm, more than eight hours after going to Baylor and six hours after arriving at Parkland—“probably the worst six hours of my life,” she says.
Julie’s story is not uncommon. Until last year, as per an agreement made with the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office in the 1970s, only Parkland could gather forensic evidence in rape cases, regardless of where the assault took place or where the victim lived. Victims sometimes forewent rape kits altogether rather than go to a county hospital and experience long waits and sometimes insensitive treatment.
But the system began to change last March. Thanks to a rape survivor named Courtney Underwood, as well as a $2 million grant from the W.W. Caruth Jr. Foundation, Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas opened its Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program. Incredibly, for the first time, sexual assault victims could choose where to go to have evidence collected. Underwood was also responsible for the launch of the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center (DARCC), the city’s first independent rape crisis center, which opened a few months earlier.
Mere months after Presbyterian launched its SANE program, Dallas Police Chief David Brown announced a 25 percent increase in rape cases. The number, initially alarming, is actually a good thing. Brown at the time didn’t make the connection, but the increase in rape numbers means the new system is working. In other words: now that SANE and DARCC are in place, there is an increase in reporting rather than occurrence of the crime.
It all makes so much sense, and yet it took Underwood nearly 10 years of pleading with city and county officials to make it happen. In a county now barreling toward a population of 3 million, why did Dallas labor for so long with just one hospital serving victims?
A little background: Underwood—28 years old and vice president of asset management for her and her mom’s company, Underwood Financial—was raped by her pastor when she was 15. But she didn’t tell her mom until she was an SMU undergrad. Soon after, she launched her crusade when she discovered that, had she chosen to report her rape, she would have had no choice in hospitals. Between 2001 and 2004, she educated herself about Dallas’ sexual assault response process, even training and volunteering as a victim advocate at Parkland. She was astounded at the wait times victims faced there. So Underwood began knocking on doors, soliciting support for bringing a SANE program to Dallas.
“I met with the president of Presbyterian. I met with the mayor at the time. I met with the district attorney,” Underwood says. “I actually cornered [then DA] Bill Hill at a Republican campaign party so that I could talk to him, and he was really nice. His response was, ‘Wow, I didn’t know that. You’re right.’ ”
But that’s what everyone said to Underwood. And then they wouldn’t return her calls. (Hill did not return calls for this story.) Nearby communities such as Fort Worth, Plano, and Kaufman have had SANE programs in place for several years. But Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA), the state’s largest sexual assault advocacy group, says she had long heard from concerned Dallas citizens who told her the district attorney didn’t want a SANE program. In Texas, while SANEs require 180 hours of training, doctors are still “seen as having more expertise,” Burrhus-Clay says. But, she adds, “In our experience the SANEs develop more of a specialty because they perform the exams more often. They tend to be more sensitive to victims and better at testifying on the stand.”
Beyond the lack of a SANE program, it also concerned Burrhus-Clay that a city the size of Dallas had no independent rape crisis center. Underwood was making the same recommendations, with few results. She attributes the resistance to the fact that the current system had been in place for so long with few people challenging it—largely because it centered on “such a taboo subject as sexual assault.” Parkland officials say there was no need for change because their system isn’t broken.
“Forensic collection is straightforward, but you have to be very exact in order to have an absolutely perfect collection of evidence,” says Linda Licata, the hospital’s director of nursing and advanced practice for Women’s Health Specialty Services. “When you start diluting who is going to do the collection of evidence, you run the risk of not achieving excellence.”
Here is how Parkland and Presbyterian differ in their processes:
At Parkland, as in the case of Julie, women are seen in the Obstetrics & Gynecology Intermediate Care Center. A victim advocate from the Victim Intervention Program/Rape Crisis Center (VIP) is dispatched, and the medical school faculty OB/GYN physician on duty performs the forensic exam. Men are treated and examined in the ER. Both men and women can receive counseling support through the VIP center.
At Presbyterian, certified nurse examiners perform the exams. DARCC and Victims Outreach provide victim advocates and counseling services. Another difference: Presbyterian will soon begin construction of its Sexual Assault Forensic Exam suites, rooms that will be used only for victims of sexual assault, both men and women. Since the SANE program is new, Dallas police refer only those who live in, or are assaulted in, the city’s Northeast Division. But if a victim elsewhere requests Presbyterian, police will honor that wish.
“We’ve actually treated patients who have come in from McKinney, Kaufman, Ennis, Richardson, Garland. So we’ve serviced quite a few, even one from Fort Worth,” says Loren Larkin, Presbyterian’s SANE program coordinator and the Emergency Department educator. “This is word of mouth because we have done very little advertising.” SANE gathered evidence in 55 cases last year.
Even Parkland’s Licata would have to agree that indicates there was a need for another hospital to provide rape kits, right? “We’ve been the only source for the sexual assault victims for a long time, and we’ve not exceeded our capacity,” Licata says. “We can continue to meet the needs.”
Underwood’s efforts to change the system finally gathered steam in 2005 when Dallas businessman and civic leader Charles Terrell heard her concerns. Terrell was then co-founding Safer Dallas Better Dallas, and he brought Underwood onto the nonprofit’s steering committee. Underwood was trying to lead this charge by herself, Terrell says, so “it wasn’t a priority with anybody. Making her part of Safer Dallas made it a priority.”
In 2008, he arranged for Underwood to make her pitch to newly elected District Attorney Craig Watkins. “We thought, Wow, that really makes no sense. Why is there only one place that you can have this service?” Watkins says. “Based upon our own due diligence there was no answer that made sense, so we fully backed what she was doing. A lot of folks want to say we’ve always done it this way. That’s not good enough.”
With Watkins onboard, a year later, Presbyterian had committed to housing the program, and the W.W. Caruth Jr. and the Meadows foundations stepped in to fund the launch of both SANE and the crisis center. Their impact is still being felt. But they have already done wonders for one rape survivor.
“Going through this really long journey and finally getting the rape crisis center open and the SANE program started, I could finally see why that happened to me,” Underwood says. “And I don’t actually regret what happened, because all of these women’s lives are being changed.”
Beatriz Terrazas was part of a team in 1994 at the Dallas Morning News that won the Pulitzer Prize for a project on violence against women.
Commissioners also agreed to spend $2.8 million for new computer, video and other equipment for Sheriff’s department squad cars. The money will be used to replace damaged and outdated equipment, including video recorders that use VHS tapes. The Sheriff’s department also got approval for a new bail bond investigator position to perform inspections on bail bond companies and to investigate complaints and possible violations of state law.
Commissioners authorized more than $621,000 in expenses on making improvements to Miller Road from Garland’s city limits to Rowlett’s city limits. The overall project is expected to cost more than $12.4 million and the county is expected to contribute more than $1.2 million toward that.
There is no commissioners court meeting scheduled for next week.
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