The Shelby County Rape Crisis Center is starting a weekly support group for rape victims whose rape kits were among the 12,000 left untested by Memphis Police Department over a 30-year period.
The announcement of the support group came Tuesday, the same day the Tennessee Legislature convened for the year, with several proposals connected to the scandal expected to at least be debated, if not acted on, during the short election-year session.
“We’ve done support groups in the past. But this one is specifically targeting the people whose cases may be among the ones in the backlog,” said Anna Whalley, administrator of the center. “We realize that this would certainly cause some people some anxiety knowing that their case may or may not have been touched. … We want to provide support to them, and the group seems like a good way to do it.”
The center’s counselors are already working with Memphis police as they contact victims about the backlog.
“Just what we know about post-traumatic stress is it would be normal if you are hearing about all of these cases that would trigger your post-traumatic stress, if you had any, and other feelings of maybe hopelessness or anger,” she said. “We had also heard from people in the community that it was needed.”
That need may be in several different forms, which the center will make available free of charge and on a confidential basis.
“What we’d like to do is for people to call us first so we can kind of see where they are with everything,” Whalley said of a process that begins with screening callers for their level of stress. “Some people may get a lot out of just talking to the counselor on the phone once or twice. Other people may want to come in and try the group. If it doesn’t work, they can certainly do individual counseling here as well.”
Meanwhile, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. were to talk privately about the issue, as they did last week when Haslam was in the city for the opening of the Electrolux plant.
Haslam told reporters that Tennessee Senate Republican leader Mark Norris will likely have legislation on the issue but wasn’t more specific. Norris carries legislation in the Senate for the Haslam administration as well.
Two bills on the issue have been filed in the current two-year legislative session.
One, sponsored by Memphis Republican Jim Coley in the House and Memphis Democrat Reginald Tate in the Senate, extends the statute of limitations for prosecuting rape cases in which DNA identifies a suspect. It was introduced last year, and other Memphis legislators, including Democrat Joe Towns in the House, have talked this year of starting to run the later statute of limitations when a rape kit is tested.
The second bill, sponsored by Memphis Democrat Antonio Parkinson in the House, requires a law enforcement agency to submit sexual assault evidence to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation within 10 days and requires that the evidence be analyzed within six months. The city has requested state funding for a backlog process that now involves testing 400 rape kits at a time at private labs with which the city is contracting.
“We have a statewide process for how this works. Any time you do something in the state, we’ve got to make sure we are being equitable across the state,” Haslam said of what the state response might be, noting that the cases are tried in state courts. “Some of that is the responsibility of the state. Some of it is local.”
City leaders are seeking to track down a letter some Memphis City Council members have talked about in which the city allegedly requested help from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation in processing the rape kits.
To date, no letter communicating with the TBI has been produced.
Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong is due in council committee sessions Tuesday for an update on the backlog.