The Austin Police Department renovated rooms for interviews involving sexual assault cases with the help of a nonprofit so survivors can share their stories in a more comfortable setting.
The six interview rooms, located within the Domestic Violence and Sex Crimes Units, were previously very stark and had thin walls, said Kachina Clark, the victim services manager for APD. She said after the renovation, the rooms now have repainted walls, comfortable chairs, new lighting and blankets. APD has already begun using the rooms for interviews after finishing the renovations last week.
“An interview for a sex crime survivor can take four or five hours sometimes, and you have to re-cover one of the worst events of your life,” Clark said. “A sterile room with bright light … is not very comfortable.”
APD partnered with Project Beloved, a nonprofit based out of Fort Worth that works with agencies to create the soft interview rooms, said nonprofit founder and president Tracy Matheson. She said she founded the nonprofit one year after her daughter, Molly Jane, was raped and murdered. Matheson said the nonprofit aims to change the conversation around sexual assault and empower survivors to find their voices.
“(There is) furniture that is going to be comfortable to sit in and maybe even curl up in,” Matheson said. “The chairs swivel. We thought that motion of the chairs would be helpful. We have soft blankets in every room, and then we also have a weighted blanket in every room … that can help calm nerves.”
Matheson said having a soft interview room is part of having a trauma-informed response, which recognizes a victim of sexual assault has experienced trauma that will impact their recollection.
“If you want to be trauma-informed, then you have a soft interview room that looks much more like your living room and helps the victim to not feel like they’re the suspect,” Matheson said.
Kierstyn Gallegos is the co-president of UT’s Voices Against Violence, an organization she said tries to uplift and support sexual assault survivors on campus and in the community. Public health junior Gallegos said the rooms will provide comfort and security to survivors during the process, but she has heard negative comments about APD’s investigative process from acquaintances.
“They felt like they weren’t believed, they weren’t being taken seriously and they just felt small,” Gallegos said. “I don’t know if the room itself is going to do much, but it’s a step in the right direction of providing some comfort.”
One of the six rooms is for the children of victims to wait in while the survivor is interviewed, Matheson said. She said the walls also feature blown up photographs taken by Megan Getrum, a Plano woman who was raped and murdered in 2017 by the same person as Molly Jane.
Matheson said she has received positive feedback from other Texas police departments who have created soft interview rooms.
“You hate that the rooms are being used, because that means you’re talking to sexual assault survivors,” Matheson said. “But the environment is yielding positive results, and … we can act on their story and hopefully make an arrest and maybe even take someone to trial and get a conviction.”