DEVELOPMENT OF SEXUAL ASSAULT RESPONSE TEAM MAXIMIZES RESPONSE AND CARE FOR SURVIVORS OF SEXUAL ASSAULT
HARRIS COUNTY – (November 10, 2021) – Every 68 seconds, an individual is sexually assaulted in the United States, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). In 2019, FBI crime statistics revealed that the Lone Star State ranked as the 15th most dangerous state for rape and sexual assault in the Nation. In 2020, in Texas, there were 13,327 rapes and 16,969 sexual assaults reported. During the same year, in Harris County there were over 2,495 reported rapes, down by 3.5% from 2019. However, according to the National Crime Victimization Study (NCVS) only 22.9 percent of rape/sexual assaults nationwide were reported to law enforcement in 2020. To address this issue, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 476 by Senator Jane Nelson, with the intent to create systems that are sensitive and responsive to the needs of adult sexual assault survivors. This bill calls for the establishment of County Sexual Assault Response Teams (SARTs) in Texas and outlines the minimum composition of these SARTs, their duties, and responsibilities. Understanding the importance and the need to strengthen support systems for survivors of sexual assault, the Harris County Commissioners Court unanimously instructed the Justice Administration Department to recommend a slate of qualified candidates that would make up the Harris County Sexual Assault Response Team (HCSART). The HCSART is meant to use the skills of its expert members to help improve practices in the investigation and prosecution of adult sexual assault while also prioritizing the health and safety of survivors. Commissioner Adrian Garcia, Precinct Two, led the charge during Commissioners Court and was joined by the rest of the Court members in making sure that Harris County not only complies with the minimum requirements of the new law, but that the County ensures that we do everything we can to address the needs of survivors of sexual violence and give them a safe space, ultimately aiding in the prevention of this crime.“One sexual assault victimization is one too many. Often times the perceived stigma associated with being victimized can contribute to the lack of reporting when it comes to sexual assault cases. This may be attributed to the valid fear of not being believed, possible language barriers, or fear of being blamed for their victimization,” said Commissioner Adrian Garcia. “We must support survivors and ensure the appropriate support is provided. The newly created Harris County Sexual Assault Response Team (HCSART) will aim to help survivors get justice they deserve. I’m thankful for the support of my fellow members of Commissioners Court for their votes to create the HCSART. Their expertise to develop sound and evidence-based recommendations will improve the way we serve all sexual assault survivors”. The HCSART is charged with creating protocols to address the investigation and prosecution of adult sexual assault and maintaining data on the number of sexual assaults reported to law enforcement, and the investigation, and prosecution of such offenses that will culminate in a written report to the Commissioners Court.Members of the HCSART team include sexual assault victim advocates, sexual assault nurse examiners, law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense. Representing these roles, in compliance with SB 476, with additional stakeholders, JAD’s recommendations for the HCSART include:
- Emilee Whitehurst, President & CEO of Houston Area Women’s Center (HAWC)
- Sonia Corrales, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Houston Area Women’s Center (HAWC)
- Johna Stallings (primary), Division Chief of Adult Sex Crimes and Trafficking Division, Harris County District Attorney’s Office
- Jamie Burro (back-up), Felony Chief Adult Sex Crimes and Trafficking Division, Harris County District Attorney’s Office
- Celeste Byrom (back-up), Division Chief and Director of Victim Services Division, Harris County District Attorney’s Office
- Lieutenant Gale Johnson, Adult Special Crimes Section, Harris County Sheriff’s Office
- Sergeant Tommy Smith, Adult Special Crimes Section, Harris County Sheriff’s Office
- Deputy Oscar Cisneros, Deputy Investigator, Criminal Investigations Bureau, Adult Special Crimes Section, Adult Sex Crimes Unit, Harris County Sheriff’s Office
- Lieutenant Jacinda J. Gunter, Special Victims Division, Adult Sex Crimes Unit, Houston Police Department
- Commander Hong-Le Conn, Special Victims Division, Houston Police Department
- Commander Harlan Daniel Harris, Victim Services, Houston Police Department
- Dr. Amy Castillo, Chief Operating Officer, Houston Forensic Science Center
- Courtney Head, Manager of Forensic Biology, Houston Forensic Science Center
- Jamie Ferrell, Clinical Director, Memorial Hermann Health System, Forensic Nursing Services
- Dr. Sally Henin, Chief of Medical Operations, Memorial Hermann Health Systems, Forensic Nursing Operations
- Sandra Sanchez, Program Director, Forensic Nursing Harris Health System
- Dr. Khara Breeden, Chief Executive Officer, The Forensic Center of Excellence
- Micala Clark, Legal Counsel, The Forensic Center of Excellence
- Wayne Young, Chief Executive Officer, The Harris Center for Mental Health and IDD
- Brenda Sykes, Executive Director, Bay Area Turning Point, Inc.
- Wykesha Dixon, Program Director at Bay Area Turning Point, Inc.
- Olivia Rivers, CEO/Executive Director, The Bridge Over Troubled Waters, Inc.
- Barbie Brashear, Executive Director, Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council
- Monica Gonzales, Senior Litigator, Felony Trial Division, Harris County Public Defender’s Office
Following approval by the Commissioners Court of the inaugural HCSART, HAWC will oversee the administrative duties for the team, including scheduling their initial meeting on or before December 1, 2021. During this meeting, the HCSART will elect a presiding officer, determine structure and by-laws, establish outreach to additional partners, and develop best practices.“We are pleased to partner with the JAD to identify the individuals that will help make up the HCSART. We want to do all we can to help support victims and survivors of sexual assault. I am grateful to Harris County Commissioners Court for prioritizing this issue and helping us build the Harris County Sexual Assault Response Team (HCSART). We are looking forward to overseeing the administration and working collaboratively with our partners to make the HCSART a success and, most importantly, helping victims of sexual assault feel safe and protected,” said Emilee Whitehurst, President & CEO of Houston Area Women’s Center (HAWC).For more information, here for the memo and here for the PowerPoint presentation.
The HCSART can play a critical role in improving survivors' experiences with services and law enforcement, hold those who have caused harm accountable, and reduce the overall prevalence of sexual assault. Collectively, with the support of the Commissioners Court, the County can dismantle barriers survivors encounter when seeking support and provide ways to heal.“Harris County’s approach provides an example of a best practice to other counties putting together their SARTs to comply with SB 476. We encourage others to review the memo that JAD put together to utilize as an example of how they too, can implement SB 476,” stated Elizabeth Boyce, General Counsel, Director of Policy and Advocacy, Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA).