Two decades ago, Parkland Hospital was the only place in Dallas providing rape kits to survivors. There were no independent clinics, no Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) programs. And for Courtney Underwood, there was no help.
She was raped by her pastor at knife-point when she was 15. But it wasn’t until her sophomore year at SMU that the Highland Park native, now 35, realized Dallas was the largest city—and county—in the country without a SANE program or rape crisis center. Even at Parkland, survivors would have a minimum eight-hour wait. It took Underwood seven years of campaigning to open the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center, and the city’s first hospital SANE program, at Texas Health Presbyterian, in 2010. In those first four months alone, sexual assault reports increased by 25 percent. Victims were being heard.
While working for her mom’s commercial real estate company (which she now runs), Underwood founded The SANE Initiative in 2013—she directs it pro bono—and expanded the program to Methodist Dallas Medical Center a year later. “The whole reason that SANEs were created and have been so effective is because doctors really don’t have the training in forensics to do these exams,” Underwood says. “But it’s also for the nurses to have the time to testify.”
This month, 20 years after her assault, she’s opening Courtney’s SAFE Place, the first 24/7 SANE clinic in North Texas. Until now, hospitals have been the only option for SANE exams. The clinic, inside The Turning Point Rape Crisis Center in Plano, provides significantly shorter wait times for survivors of all genders. They can talk to a certified victim advocate and have a specially trained nurse do a forensic exam. They can choose to report to law enforcement or not. They’ll also never see a bill.
“It’s very much about giving the survivor back the feeling of control over their body,” says Underwood, whose PTSD service dog, a Maltese-Yorkie mix named Brooks, fills the clinic’s logo. “Then on the other side of the building is the crisis center. So they’ve already met people here. They’ve felt supported, and they’re more likely to come back for counseling.”
Ultimately, she wants to open another Courtney’s SAFE Place in Dallas and create a model that spreads throughout North Texas and the country.
“I want every survivor to know that a fellow victim created this,” Underwood says. “They walk in, knowing they’re safe. Knowing they’re believed. They feel like people are fighting for them. And they know that there’s hope.”