Senate Passes Bill Establishing Basic Rights for Sexual Assault Victims

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May 25, 2016; New York Times

In NPQ’s coverage of the rape kit backlog, estimated to number in the hundreds of thousands, we have reported on the many ways victims are deprived not only of justice, but also of their rights. From disorganized police stations to departments that simply don’t prioritize testing rape kits, victims are sometimes left in the dark on the status and content of their kits. Now, that might change. On Monday, the Senate unanimously passed a bill that would give sexual assault victims some basic rights, including notifications of the results of their rape kits.

The Sexual Assault Survivor’s Act, which is part of a larger bill reauthorizing the Adam Walsh Child Protection and Safety Act, is now on its way to the House. The Judiciary Committee is currently reviewing it, and there seems to be strong bipartisan support for it to pass.

Currently, there are few federal provisions in place for victims of rape and sexual assault. States do offer possible compensation, but if a victim wants information on his or her rape kit, they’ll have to seek that information themselves—and that’s if it is readily available. In cases where cities have thousands of backlogged kits, that task is made harder, and the trauma of their assault reinforced.

If this bill passes, sexual assault victims will have access to the results of rape kits (such as a DNA match), the location of the kit, and whether or not it has been tested and to what degree. He or she will be privy to the results of any toxicology tests, which might show an individual was given a date-rape drug. Moreover, the victims will not be charged for their rape kits, as some victims report having been, and kits will be preserved at no charge for as long as the statute of limitations allows for that particular offense to be prosecuted, which will vary state to state and crime to crime.

The bill also makes counselors available to victims, and may establish a working group “to develop, coordinate, and disseminate best practices regarding the care and treatment of sexual assault survivors and the preservation of forensic evidence” that will include representatives from national organizations who have a “demonstrated expertise in sexual assault prevention, sexual assault advocacy, or representation of sexual assault victims, particularly representatives of underserved or ethnic minority communities.”

Particularly important for the working group is the inclusion of experts in the field, including those from the nonprofit sector, who have been immersed in victim advocacy and have seen the shortcomings, whether in the legal system, in the health system, or in the police station. In fact, the bill was in part inspired by the struggles of a real sexual assault victim, Amanda Nguyen, about whom New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen wrote and then drafted some of the primary points of the act. Among the issues she has dealt with, Nguyen had to travel to the state she was assaulted in every six months to ensure her rape kit had not been destroyed. She also was not provided any information about her legal options after she had reported her assault. Experiences such as Nguyen’s, or the potential for such an experience, may deter other victims from coming forward and reporting their assaults.

Rebecca O’Connor from RAINN spoke out in support of the bill, particularly for how it may help victims navigate a complex process. “It’s kind of this tangled web of programs that all complement one another, and this is just another piece of that pie.”

The Joyful Heart Foundation and district attorneys from across the country have been investing time and money in eliminating the backlog, but there is still significant work to be done. While Houston, Memphis, New York City, and Detroit have all been working to determine how large their backlog is and then trying to eliminate it, other cities, either through the lack of funds, time, or interest, still do not know the extent of their backlog.

If victims have a right to know where their rape kits are at each stage of the process, police departments, according to this law, will have to begin prioritizing sexual assault victims. Establishing these rights will force police departments to shape up.—Shafaq Hasan