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How to protect the civil rights of sexual assault survivors

May 19, 2016 /
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Living through a sexual assault is nightmare enough — what makes things worse is a broken legal system that routinely ignores, loses and even destroys crucial evidence, an institutional injustice that one legal-system survivor set out to fix.

In the US, if you’re sexually assaulted, your treatment by the justice system can depend on the state you’re in. Not the terrible state of being a traumatized rape survivor … but literally, the particular state of the US you happen to be in at the time. A dizzying patchwork of inconsistent laws make the experience of reporting the crime and seeking justice confusing, conflicting and often hideously unjust.

Amanda Nguyen’s new bill before the US Senate aims to change that.

Nguyen’s journey to Capitol Hill began as a survivor herself. Stunned by the broken state of the legal system and the battle to protect her own rights, she founded the nonprofit organization Rise to fight for the universal rights of rape survivors. In February 2016, Rise’s Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act was introduced into the US Senate. If it passes (you can track the bill here), it will standardize and guarantee the fair treatment of America’s 25–30 million sexual assault survivors — and will represent a personal victory for Nguyen. Here, she tells us how the US justice system has failed rape survivors, and how the bill will help fix it.

The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act bill protects civil rights for all sexual assault survivors. One of the crucial parts of the bill includes the handling of the rape kit – a collection of evidence taken from the victim’s body. Without this time-sensitive biological material, it’s next to impossible to bring justice in sexual assault cases. “In a sexual assault, the victim’s body is the crucial part of the crime scene,” says Nguyen. “After medical personnel gather the evidence at a health care facility or hospital, the rape kits go to law enforcement, who send it to a forensic lab.”

For rape survivors, here’s where things tend to go wrong. “Depending on the circumstances, either the kit is processed or stored,” she says. Too often, they don’t get processed, and the kits are tucked away in storage — or even lost in the system. But that’s not even rock bottom: After a certain period, the kit can be destroyed, sometimes even before the statute of limitations ends, and with it goes all evidence with which to investigate and prosecute the crime.

As Nguyen discovered while navigating her own case, this time period varies by state. “In Massachusetts, where I was, it’s six months,” says Nguyen. “So every six months I have to work to have my kit protected, despite the 15-year statute of limitations. In New Hampshire and Montana, it’s two months before the kit can be destroyed.” Regardless of the deadline, it’s up to the survivor to actively fight to keep their kit from being destroyed — yet, says Nguyen, our current justice system doesn’t provide a clear process by which to do so.

Justice shouldn’t depend on geography. Rise’s goal: to fix the inconsistent patchwork of sexual assault laws across states, so that every victim has a fair shot at justice. When Nguyen began researching her own rights, she discovered that if her assault had occurred in a state with broader civil-rights protections, she wouldn’t have to fight every six months to protect her kit from destruction. “Right now, two survivors in two different states have two completely different sets of rights,” she says. “So Rise’s main task has been to research standard operating procedures across states, and collating best practices in each state. Michigan, for instance, has a tracking system for rape kits. In contrast, in my case, the police department in Massachusetts did not know where my kit was. If we can track a Domino’s pizza, then we should be able to track something as important as crucial evidence for a case.”

Other rights that Nguyen would like to see as standard across states: guaranteeing survivors the right to have their rape kits preserved for the statute of limitations, the right to be notified in writing 60 days prior to the destruction of a kit, and the right to get the medical results of their forensic examinations. “In some states, even survivors who ask for a copy of their police report are denied it,” says Nguyen. “In what world would you get your bike stolen and then file a report and then ask for your report and get denied? Inconsistency flies against equality under the law, which is something that, I think, all Americans believe in,” she says. “That’s why this is a civil rights issue.”

The solution: crunching numbers. “Much of the problem stems from human error and, to some extent, apathy, but it’s not useful to point fingers at law enforcement or medical personnel,” says Nguyen. Instead, Rise took a data-driven, analytical approach to focus on the gaps where the problem is truly a failure of the law or the system. “For example, we saw that in Detroit, the testing of 2,000 of 11,000 previously untested kits resulted in the identification of 100 serial rapists and ten convicted rapists. That data makes a strong case for the importance of this bill.”

With a team of volunteers, Rise used this data to create a model Sexual Assaults Survivors’ Bill of Rights to be adopted at the federal and state level. Rise has thus far introduced a version of this legislation in the US House of Representatives and the US Senate, and has state legislation at different stages in Massachusetts, California, Oregon and New York.

The state-level version of the Survivor Bill of Rights works on the ground to improve best practices. Why the difference between state and federal bills? “Sexual assault is a state crime, not a federal one – and state laws regulate law enforcement. So Rise’s model bill geared for states is very similar to the federal bill, but it can be tailored to the capacity of that state,” says Nguyen. “It’s not a one-size-fits all. Some states are more progressive than others, or more open to different solutions. For example, some states might be able to agree to process kits in a timely manner, while others don’t have the budget for that and so can only pledge not to destroy them.”

“One of the rights we cover is ensuring survivors are informed of what rights they have in that state,” says Nguyen. “You may think this is common sense, but it doesn’t always happen.” She tells this story: “There was a survivor in California who went to the ER and asked to be admitted to a hospital within 24 hours; she was turned away and told she needed to wait until after she made her official report to police. In California, the right to be guaranteed admittance to a hospital within 24 hours after a sexual assault is already supposed to be protected – but the survivor wasn’t informed, so by the time she went to be examined, the date-rape drug, GHB, was no longer in her system. The toxicology report came back clean — and with that, she doesn’t have a case.”

Meanwhile, the federal bill of rights reinforces state efforts. “Everything that the US Congress can recognize as an issue of national importance gives a national platform,” says Nguyen. “The Survivors’ Bill of Rights was modeled after the 2004 Crime Victims’ Rights Act, a set of standard rights afforded to victims in federal criminal cases, and which were then used as a model and adopted at state level. In Rise’s case, the grassroots effort originated at a state level –— but the momentum was so strong that we had more than enough support to campaign for a federal bill.”

However, a successfully passed bill is no guarantee. “Half the battle is getting the rights in the books, and then the other half is having those rights felt.” This is why implementation is built into the bill: it calls for establishing a stakeholders’ task force to assess the effectiveness of the rights. “Using this assessment, we’ll make sure that survivors, innocent people and law-enforcement officers are dealing with this situation better.”

Citizenship is about participation. Anyone can foment change. Rise, which is made up of a volunteer team of 60 people — students, activists, health care professionals — working together in their spare time from all over the country, is now in the midst of an awareness campaign to showcase the need for the federal bill, while continuing its work in state legislation.

“On the state level, our goal is to introduce this in 15 more states in the next two months. And we’re marching towards getting Survivor’s Bills passed in all 50 states by the end of the year.”

Nguyen wants ordinary citizens — and, in particular, millennials — to see Rise as a model of advocacy. “All of us have day jobs,” says Nguyen. “I mention this because people often think, ‘Ah, I just don’t have the time to change the world.’ But anybody can do it if they want to.”

Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights

  1. The right to have a sexual assault evidence collection kit preserved for duration of the applicable statute of limitations.

  2. The right to be notified in writing 60 days prior to the destruction of a sexual assault evidence collection kit.

  3. The right to request further preservation of a sexual assault evidence collection kit.

  4. The right to be informed of important results of a sexual assault forensic examination.

  5. A working group that assesses the effectiveness of these policies.

  6. A grant for Attorney Generals to provide survivors with written notice of what rights and policies they have in that State.