President Obama Signs First Ever Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights

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The bill begins to close gaps in state-by-state regulatory treatment of sexual assault survivors.

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When Amanda Nguyen, an aspiring NASA mission specialist who currently serves as the White House deputy liaison at the U.S. Department of State, was sexually assaulted, the last thing she expected was to relive her experience over and over again. While making the decision of whether or not to pursue legal action, she discovered she was on a tighter timeline than the Massachusetts statute of limitations—the maximum time after an event within which legal action can be initiated—allowed her to believe. Despite giving Nguyen 15 years to press charges, Massachusetts law required her to file an “extension request” every six months, or else the state would destroy her rape kit—often the only tangible evidence a rape victim has to prove an assault had occurred. The extension process was unclear, sending Amanda laboring to complete this process every six months.

When she decided to look into what procedures and rights were guaranteed to sexual assault survivors in other states, she found a patchwork of regulations at the state level—disorder and differences between protections afforded in every state. In an effort to further the rights of sexual assault survivors, Nguyen founded Rise—a national civil rights non-profit that works with state legislators and U.S. Congress to implement legislation tailored to aid survivors.

Last month, President Obama and Congress sent a strong message to survivors: that they deserve a more uniform set of regulations and rights. President Obama signed the landmark Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights into law, introducing the words “sexual assault survivor” into the Federal Code for the first time ever. The bill is modeled after the Federal Crime Victims’ Rights Act, which Congress enacted in 2004 to protect a victim’s right to be reasonably protected from the accused, to be informed of all public court proceedings involving the crime, and to be treated with dignity and privacy.

Although all states have implemented a set of basic rights for crime victims, there are still significant gaps in coverage for sexual assault survivors. For instance, statutes of limitations vary from state to state and are often much longer than the amount of time officials are required to keep untested rape kits in the system. According to the Department of Justice, an estimated 400,000 rape kits are reportedly backlogged throughout the United States. A variety of reasons exist for these significant gaps in coverage, including underfunded law enforcement agencies and high turnover in police leadership. Additionally, some states still charge women for their rape kits, even though the federal Violence Against Women Act prohibits such charges.

The Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights addresses these holes in the system. The rights in the bill include: the right to have a sexual assault evidence collection kit preserved without charge for the entire relevant statute of limitations, the right to be notified in writing 60 days prior to the destruction of a sexual assault evidence collection kit, the right to request further preservation of a sexual assault evidence collection kit, the right to be informed of important results from a sexual assault forensic examination, and the right to not be charged for a forensic exam.

The bill is limited to federal cases of sexual assaults; however, a majority of sexual assault crimes are prosecuted at the state level. This means that for a key purpose of the legislation to be actualized—eliminating the current patchwork of rules across all 50 states—each state will still need to adopt uniform or similar bills in their own state legislatures. Advocacy groups, such as the one started by Nguyen, continue to work with state legislatures on bills to protect the same rights in state cases. In September, lobby efforts by End Rape SOL and the California Women’s Law Center successfully eliminated California’s statute of limitations for rape cases.

Now enacted, the legislation confers responsibility on to the Attorney General, in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services, to establish a joint working group “to develop, coordinate, and disseminate best practices regarding the care and treatment of sexual assault survivors and the preservation of forensic evidence.” The working group is tasked with identifying reforms and recommending them to policymakers. It is also required to collect feedback from federal and state actors to develop best practices and clinical guidelines regarding the care and treatment of sexual assault survivors.

In a recent NPR interview, Amanda emphasized that the rights in the Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights were “basic and non-controversial.” In order to get it passed through a polarized Congress, the advocates for the bill decided to focus on rights that were supported by key entities in the state, like advocacy groups, survivors, law enforcement, and even innocence groups.

The federal government has not only acknowledged gaping protections for sexual assault survivors by federal legislation, but it has also put protection and rights for survivors at the forefront of national dialogue. Yet, a few states guarantee sexual assault survivors even stronger rights, such as providing rape victims with emergency contraception, which were not adopted into the federal bill.

“This law is an exciting first step to secure justice for sexual assault survivors. Hopefully it will serve as an impetus for states to update not only their civil protections for survivors, but also their criminal definitions of sexual assault offenses,” said Elizabeth Tang, a Rise board member who worked with congressional offices to help draft the bill.

The working group has two years to submit their findings and recommended actions to the Attorney General, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Congress.