By Stacy Teicher Khadaroo
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 in February when she and her cosponsors 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 (http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/ Society/2016/0221/CSI-Cleveland-How-the-city-is-curbing-sexual-violence). 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 (see sidebar).
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 is the culmination of grassroots 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 U.S. 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 (RAINN) in Washington.
There are signs of change, big and small. In March, 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 trans-parency 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 Alex-andria, 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.”
Stacy Teicher Khadaroo is a national reporter for the Christian Science Monitor, where a version of this story first appeared. Based in Nashua, N.H., she closely follows issues related to women’s rights around the world. http://www.csmonitor. com/USA/Justice/2016/0321/To-combat-rape-a-bill-of-rights-for-survivors.
RISE for Dignity By Amanda Nguyen
America’s justice system is broken in the way it treats rape survivors. Survivors’ rights vary from state to state, but no state has enacted comprehensive rights protections for survivors. This creates a patchwork system that works against the people it is supposed to support.
I know firsthand how the justice system treats rape survivors, but I also know that my story is not unique. The CDC estimates there are 25 million sexual assault survivors in the United States. More than 40 states have backlogs in untested rape kits. Some states do not cover the full medical expenses of a kit, leaving survivors to pay their own way toward justice. A handful of states don’t even notify the survivor when they permanently destroy a rape kit.
That is why I founded RISE in November 2014—to push for comprehensive rights for survivors in every state and at the federal level. We have come together as survivors and advocates to fight for a comprehensive Bill of Rights for survivors, including:
- The right to be notified of your rights in clear language
- The right to know your own medical information from your own rape kit
- The right not to have to pay for your own rape kit
- The right to a copy of your own police report
We have accomplished a lot in less than two years, including a bill currently pending in several states and in the Senate. Since the federal introduction, seven states have asked us to bring these rights to survivors in their states. Our Change.org petition currently has more than 90,000 supporters. A movement is building, and we need to seize this momentum to make America fair for all survivors—so that justice does not depend on geography.
RISE is entirely composed of volunteers who donate their time but we need resources to bring comprehensive civil rights to survivors across 50 states. During April, Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and Rise sent survivors across the country to meet with key government officials, members of the press, and tech executives. In order to enact change, we need these leaders to hear our stories.
RISE set a goal of raising $20,000 to bring survivors to Washington and/or their state capitols to meet with legislators. To contribute to the campaign, go to: https://www.change.org/f/ help-give-rape-survivors-a-voice/ contribute?source_location= fundraiser_show.