Advocates are confident that a new federal law guaranteeing a “bill of rights” for sexual assault survivors will serve as a model for state legislatures to standardize their oftentimes haphazard responses.
President Obama signed the unanimously bipartisan Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act October 7—the same day video leaked of Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for the nation’s highest office, bragging about sexually assaulting women.
Under the “bill of rights” section, law enforcement officials must preserve a rape kit, evidence collected during a forensic examination, for the duration of an assault’s statute of limitations, notifying a survivor in writing 60 days prior to destroying or disposing of it. Enduring backlogs of rape kits across the country persist in some cases due to inherent bias and victim-blaming among law enforcement about sexual assault cases, erroneously leading them to conclude that testing kits is unnecessary. Destroying rape kits makes it even harder to prosecute criminal cases if and when survivors choose to pursue charges.
The law also prohibits charging survivors for the rape kit examination and ensures access to the results.
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Other portions of the law establish a joint U.S. Department of Justice-U.S. Department of Health and Human Services working group and empower the attorney general to tap into the existing Crime Victims Fund, issuing grants to states that notify sexual assault survivors of comparable rights within their borders.
The law has limited impact for now. Most sexual assaults fall under state and local purview, putting the onus on the state legislatures to follow suit with their own versions of the law.
Amanda Nguyen worked with Congress to draft the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act. She doesn’t doubt that state lawmakers will act.
“We have a very clear path to victory here,” she told Rewire in an interview.
Nguyen founded Rise, the advocacy group behind the law, as a then 24-year-old rape survivor forced to prevent the destruction of her rape kit held in Massachusetts. “The rape was not the most traumatic thing that happened to me,” she said in an earlier interview. “It was being betrayed by a broken criminal justice system.”
Rise focused on enacting a federal law to hasten corresponding state responses in the vein of the Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a successful push in the 1990s that Nguyen said set a “precedent for this model working.”
By Nguyen’s account, states began reaching out to Rise before the legislation reached the president’s desk. Advocates, legislators, and law enforcement officials in Minnesota began a parallel push even though Rise affiliates weren’t on the ground in the state—”literally the theory working out.” The federal push, she said, provided a “platform that showed that our nation’s leaders, no matter how partisan or how difficult in an election year things may get, this is something that people can stand together on.”
Nguyen said Rise’s next steps will be going into the states and “working with advocates, listening to what it is that people need and want to do, and then making sure that rights are going to be codified on the state level.”
Advocates can leverage the Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act to underscore that “the federal government believes this is the right thing to do,” according to Ilse Knecht, director of advocacy and policy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national organization that works to end sexual assault, domestic violence, and child abuse and assist survivors of those experiences.
“I think it’s really going to give us sort of this foundation to go out to the states and say, ‘This is what you should be doing for survivors,’” Knecht said.
Joyful Heart’s guidance for state lawmakers to draft rape kit reform legislation includes ensuring some of the same rights as the new law.
International Association of Forensic Nurses Association CEO Sally Laskey said the law could encourage state legislators to take a more comprehensive, rather than piecemeal, approach in addressing survivors’ needs.
Laskey emphasized the need for “some customization at the state level” that accounts for barriers traditionally impeding tribal communities, people of color, and non-native English speakers from accessing services. Successful state legislative efforts will involve “really looking at the resources, the communication that is available to make sure that access truly is there for all patients.”