To combat rape, a 'bill of rights' for survivors

A 'survivors’ bill of rights' has been introduced in the Senate and the Massachusetts State House. Seven states are considering similar legislation.

Courtesy of RISE
New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, left, meets with Amanda Nguyen, a Harvard grad who worked to create a bill of rights for rape survivors after she was sexually assaulted in 2013. Senator Shaheen introduced the Sexual Assault Survivors Act in February, and a similar bill is being considered by the Massachusetts State House.

A woman in California shows up at a hospital for a sexual assault examination. Hospital workers delay because they don't know that she has a right to get the exam, whether or not she reports the crime to police. By the time they examine her, it’s too late to detect certain “date-rape” drugs that she believes were in her system.

A woman in Minnesota is erroneously billed by the hospital for her rape kit. She spends two years fighting for the compensation she’s due.

A woman in Massachusetts has to jump through bureaucratic hoops every six months to keep her rape kit from being thrown out, in case she decides to press charges.

A sheriff in Idaho tells a news reporter that the legislature shouldn’t be mandating the testing of rape kits because “the majority of our rapes that are called in are actually consensual sex.”

These are the kinds of stories creating momentum in Congress and in statehouses for reforming how women and men are treated when they report a rape. A “survivors’ bill of rights” has been introduced in Congress, with a similar version working its way through the Massachusetts State House. Seven states are considering similar legislation.

Sexual assault is a crime so personal and so underreported, victims’ rights advocates say, that survivors have special needs. Unless those are taken into account, they add, it will be hard to make progress.

“We have to create an environment where survivors feel like the system is working for them,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire, in a statement last month when she and her co-sponsors introduced the Sexual Assault Survivors Act.

A patchwork quilt of laws

In recent years, American society has undergone what victims’ rights advocates say is a sea change regarding the treatment of rape survivors – a change they say is necessary for people to be willing to report the crime. A big push has been under way to ensure that rape kits for reported crimes are tested, instead of languishing in police stations or forensic labs, partly because the evidence can help catch serial offenders.  

A growing number of communities also have established sexual assault response teams to ensure that victims have a better experience with hospitals, police, and courts. 

But there are holes in the patchwork quilt of state laws around these issues.

In some places, kits are stored until the statute of limitations runs out, while in others victims are not notified before destruction of untested kits. Victims in some states have trouble accessing their own medical records after undergoing a sexual assault exam.

‘I have to fight to hold on to my kit’

For rape survivor Amanda Nguyen, who helped draft the proposal that became the congressional and Massachusetts bills, the transformation into a citizen-activist started at a hospital in 2013.

Within 24 hours of being sexually assaulted, she underwent the hours-long examination to collect evidence for a rape kit. One of the pamphlets she received told her that if she didn’t report the crime to law enforcement, the kit would be destroyed in six months – unless she filed for an extension. In Massachusetts, the statute of limitations for the prosecution of rape is 15 years.

There were no directions about how to get the extension, and Ms. Nguyen decided she wasn’t ready to go through the often grueling process of pursuing criminal charges for rape. She also wasn’t ready to have the evidence of the crime committed against her summarily tossed. So she entered what she describes as a “labyrinth” to figure out how to preserve the kit.

“Every six months, my life is reoriented to the date of the rape, because I have to fight to hold on to my kit [so it’s not] destroyed in the trash can,” she says in a phone interview.  

The introduction of the bills are the culmination of grass-roots lobbying by Nguyen, founder of the advocacy group RISE. With the help of what she describes as a “ragtag group of Millennials,” she drafted the basis of Shaheen’s bill, as well as the Massachusetts bill. It also led to a pending US House resolution with bipartisan support that encourages states to take similar measures.

Shaheen’s Sexual Assault Survivors Act would offer states small grants to help them share information with victims about their rights when they first step into a hospital or police station.

For victims of federal crimes, the bill:

  • Provides for sexual assault examination kits to be preserved through the statute of limitations.
  • The right to be notified and request extended storage if a kit is due to be destroyed.
  • The right to be informed about results of the examination.

“Without a clear set of rights articulated in the law, it’s difficult for even the best law enforcement professionals to ensure that survivors receive fair, effective, consistent treatment, particularly across counties and states,” Shaheen said.

Most sexual assaults are not tried at the federal level, so the bill aims to be a model for states, which often take a cue from federal laws.

The Massachusetts bill is broader, such as guaranteeing that a victim can have an advocate accompany her through medical and criminal justice proceedings and that she or he won’t be charged for a rape kit or emergency contraception. It also assures victims that toxicology reports from medical exams won’t be used to charge them with misdemeanor crimes, such as underage drinking.

These and other efforts around the country show that “people get that it’s not just about getting evidence, but making sure the human aspect is addressed … by treating every kit with the respect it deserves,” says Rebecca O’Connor, vice president for public policy at the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network in Washington.

There are signs of change, big and small. On Friday, Idaho Bingham County Sheriff Craig Rowland offered a clarification and apology for his remarks to a TV reporter that “the majority of our rapes” were consensual sex.

“I misspoke when I said the majority of our rape cases are consensual sex,” wrote Sheriff Rowland in The Idaho Statesman. “This has been a very humbling experience and I now know that I have to clarify myself more when speaking of sensitive matters….” 

Idaho is actually one of several states with a bill for better handling of rape kits that was forged with input of all stakeholders, including law enforcement, says Ilse Knecht, of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which has lobbied to reduce rape kit backlogs.

In 2015, 11 states passed laws requiring sexual assault kit audits to or guidelines for submitting kits for testing, the foundation reports. The sticking point in such debates is often funding.

“Law enforcement recognizes there is a need to have more transparency and be more responsive to crime victims … but resources are a huge issue,” says Andrea Edmiston, director of governmental affairs at the National Association of Police Organizations in Alexandria, Va.

For Nguyen, the need is urgent.

After a tough day telling her story to Massachusetts lawmakers, Nguyen says she went home and cried, praying for some sense that the effort was worth it. The next day, her Uber driver was the one who burst into tears, telling her about his daughter’s rape and her treatment by authorities.

“I could accept injustice or rewrite the law,” she says. “I chose to rewrite the law, because I am not the only one going through this.”

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