The Williamson County SART released their first biennial report, sharing findings with the Williamson County Commissioners Court on Nov. 21.
According to Ryan Bownds, the chief prosecutor of the special victims unit for the Williamson County District Attorney office, many survivors do not trust the justice system to fully support their experienced trauma or restore their rights.
“That's part of the reason you see some of the numbers of cases investigated, why there's a gap between prosecution and what's investigated by law enforcement.” Bownds said.
Bownds cited that a recent client waited four days to report an incident of sexual assault.
“She did not believe that the [court] process would support her and that it would not take that action to care for her and restore her, where her rights are protected just as much as anyone else,” Bownds said.
Additionally, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department confirmed that some of the disparity seen between the number of cases reported and the number of cases investigated is a result of logistical processes. Some cases reported to the WilCo Sheriff’s Department actually occurred in a different county, which means the case must be transferred to the corresponding entity.
The Cedar Park Police Department Victim Services Department stated that victims of sexual assault sometimes do not wish to proceed with an investigation. The department noted that while it follows the wishes of the individual, the agency ensures they are given resources for counseling, advocacy and other victim services.
The SART is a multiagency group working to minimize survivor retraumatization while also increasing efficiency within the response and prosecution process.
The team includes members from law enforcement, medical personnel, advocacy groups and judicial officials. Williamson County SART is a “survivor-centered” program that spearheads collaboration and communication between agencies, according to the report.
It was noted that the team meets twice a month to discuss cases, trends and improvements for survivors of sexual assault.
“Here's the thing about adult sexual assault cases: they're very complex. And all parties involved—whether it is someone who is a survivor of sexual assault or whether it is a person charged with the offense of sexual assault—well, the stakes are incredibly high,” Bownds said.
The report also outlines protocols for each agency involved as the program becomes implemented. Procedures are detailed for law enforcement, medical personnel, mental health services, billing and payment, accessibility and prosecution.
The following agencies have members on the SART:
- Bluebonnet Trails Community Services
- Hope Alliance
- Brave Alliance
- Williamson County District Attorney’s office
- Williamson County Sheriff’s Office
- Round Rock Police Department
- Cedar Park Police Department
In 2021, the Texas Legislature approved Senate Bill 476, mandating that every county in Texas establish a SART. The initiative aims to create a statewide framework encompassing resources, awareness, connectivity and coordination to address adult sex crimes at the community level, according to the Texas Association of Regional Councils.
In addition to general compliance with SART state mandates, Williamson County created a position to prosecute felony adult sexual assault cases. The position was partially funded by the county and partially funded by a grant received by the district attorney.
This position allowed the district attorney capacity to create a special victims unit. The WilCo SVU includes five prosecutors, an investigator and a victim-assistance coordinator.
Grant money for the position appears limited for fiscal year 2023-24, spurring commissioners to approve a permanent adult sexual assault prosecutor position to be funded by the general fund beginning when the grant funding is exhausted.
Quote of note
“[Justice] means reaching down to the vulnerable and the oppressed and taking action to pull them up and bring them up to a position where their rights are recognized. Our job as prosecutors is statutorily mandated to seek justice, and what that means in an adult sexual assault case is that there are survivors who do not report because they don't trust the system," Bownds said.