AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Gov. Greg Abbott joined lawmakers and advocates today for a bill signing ceremony over legislation aimed at fighting human trafficking, providing access to survivors and eliminating the rape kit backlog. 

Rep. Victoria Neave, D-Dallas, and Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, worked on House Bill 8, also known as the Lavinia Masters Act. It’s named after Dallas resident Lavinia Masters, who was raped at knife-point at 13 years old. Her rape kit was untested for more than 20 years.

The legislation requires an audit to figure out the possession and analysis of sexual assault examination kits and set deadlines for the analysis of untested kits. It also extends the statute of limitations for certain sexual assault offenses.  

At the ceremony, Abbott explained that HB 8 ties funding that adds personnel to ensure that all backlog sexual assault evidence kits are retained and tested. 

It’s traditional for the Governor to give the pens he uses to sign bills to lawmakers who worked on the legislation. Rep. Neave announced she was giving her pen to Masters.  The two women embraced as the Governor, lawmakers, and the audience applauded.

Another bill he signed is Senate Bill 71, led by Sen. Nelson and Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. It establishes a statewide telehealth center to ensure victims can access specially trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, also known as SANEs. Groups that provide services for survivors say this bill will help Texans from having to drive long distances to seek help.

According to statistics from the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, there are 357 certified SANEs in Texas, but they’re primarily in urban and suburban areas. There are only about 80 facilities or clinics in the state with SANEs.  

“This law allows healthcare providers across Texas to connect with those sexual assault nurse examiners to provide appropriate care to survivors of sexual assault and to ensure that forensic evidence is collected in a way that will be held up in court,” Abbott said.

Paula Marks, who is a forensic nurse manager at SAFE Alliance in Austin, said often times, survivors come in not knowing their rights and are confused about the process. She hopes this legislation can make a daunting process slightly less intimidating.

“I think with guidance from an expert, we could assist other personnel in saying exactly how to perform the swab collection or collect this information,” she said. “We could be on the screen talking to the nurses, talking to the survivor face to face and having that empathetic, compassionate and informed expert talking to the survivors right away. For us, it seems to help our patients just be a lot more clear about the process.”

Another bill he signed is Senate Bill 20, led by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston and sponsored by Rep. Thompson in the House. It sets up two new criminal offenses for the online promotion of prostitution. Abbott said: 

“Today, I’m here to sign legislation that keeps Texas a national leader in cracking down on human trafficking. Making Texas a hostile place for human traffickers and providing protection for victims of this heinous crime. Senate Bill 20 is a bill that enhances tools to fight online sex trafficking. And to crack down on the promotion of prostitution…and importantly, it provides a path forward for victims.”

Abbott said the bill will also help victims clear their records.

He also signed House Bill 2613, filed by Rep. John Frullo, R-Lubbock, which sets up a process for using proceeds from contraband that came from crimes of human smuggling or from a stash house to be used for direct victim services. 

“What House Bill 2613 does is it creates the criminal offense of operating a stash house,” said Abbott. “It also makes that house an asset to forfeiture. And importantly: the proceeds from this asset forfeiture will be directed to fund human trafficking victim services.”

The final piece of legislation Abbott signed is House Bill 1590, which creates a Sexual Assault Survivors’ Task Force within the Office of the Governor. Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, worked on this bill, which sets up a task force charged with handling communication between state agencies. It would also collect, study and inform the public on the prevention, investigation and prosecution of sex offenses and the services provided to survivors. This would include a list of designated sexual assault forensic exam-ready facilities. Members of the task force would also oversee making recommendations on the collection, preservation, tracking, analysis and destruction of evidence.  

“The ultimate goal here is to identify and to prevent sexual assault in Texas,” Gov. Abbott said.

The governor, a sexual assault nurse examiner and representatives from various state agencies will make up this task force. Presidents of other stakeholder groups will also be members.  

SAFE Alliance has a confidential, 24-hour SAFEline available for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse: 512-267-SAFE (7233).