MAKING IT PERSONAL: Underwood has emerged from her own struggle with a drive to help others overcome theirs. photography by Richard Pruitt

SMU Grad’s Crusade for Rape Victims

We’ve all heard how rape victims suffer twice, once when the crime is committed and again if they appear in court to testify against the accused rapist. In Dallas, however, most of them also suffer from an inability even to report the crime in a meaningful way.

Dallas County policy allows no hospital other than Parkland to provide admissible evidence in sexual assault cases. While every hospital can treat a rape victim, only Parkland’s Rape Crisis Center has the rape kit necessary to provide evidence that would be admissible in a trial. After she’s been treated at another hospital, the victim is free to go to Parkland for evidence collection, but few of them are inclined to prolong their ordeal, especially since the evidence may no longer be valid.

It’s a shortcoming that Courtney Underwood is trying to fix. Born and raised in Highland Park, the 26-year-old SMU graduate took a 46-hour training course at Parkland and volunteered there for six months. Now she is leading an unofficial coalition of city and county agencies and officials whose goals are threefold: to change the policy so all hospitals can provide the trained nurse and the rape kit necessary to obtain evidence; to create a county-wide women’s advocacy center; and to establish a local branch of a program called Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE), which trains and certifies nurses to carry out this work.
===Officially, between 600 and 700 women are raped each year in Dallas. The actual figure is higher.!==
It’s a mission that is extremely personal to Underwood, who acknowledges that she herself was raped at 15 by the pastor of her church. “It took me two years to ever discuss what happened,” Underwood says, “even longer to tell my mom or friends. I really did believe that he would kill me if I told. And how are rape survivors supposed to feel when confronting strangers, individuals who haven’t been through a similar assault?”

Underwood and her group are beginning to see success, with Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital the first to respond. “We recognize that there is a community need and are in the early stages of implementing a SANE program,” says Mary Rowe, Emergency Department nurse manager.
Dallas police welcome the efforts. According to Sgt. Patrick Welsh of DPD’s Crimes Against Persons Division, Dallas deals with between 600 and 700 rape cases each year. That number is misleading, though, as nationally as many as 80 percent of all rapes go unreported. “Dallas probably falls within that range,” Welsh says. “I’ve looked at SANE and gone to some of their training courses. They do a great job.”


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