On Monday the Senate had one of their rare unanimous votes ratifying a bill that would better protect the examination kits of rape survivors. Which is great, because we need the tenets of the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act yesterday.
The fundamental principles of the law are fairly straightforward; namely that the law should be in the business of making sexual assault survivors’ experience as simple as possible. S. 2566 would ensure that survivors have a right to have a sexual assault evidence collection kit preserved (without charge) for the entire relevant statute of limitations—which includes the opportunity to be notified in writing 60 days prior to the destruction of the evidence kit, as well as the right to request further preservation of the evidence collection kit until the statute of limitations ends. Additionally it would establish the right to be informed of important results of a sexual assault forensic exam. Perhaps most significantly, S. 2566 would mean survivors won’t be charged for forensic examinations.
The bill has reportedly been developed by New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen for about ten months, after Amanda Nguyen, a sexual assault survivor shared her story with the senator. Shaheen was surprised to hear that Nguyen had begun to feel like the system was working against her.
“In Amanda’s case, she is still required to return to the state of her assault every six months to make sure her rape kit (the DNA evidence gathered from a forensic exam) is not destroyed. After she reported her assault, she wasn’t provided any information about her legal options,” said Shaheen in a Medium post explaining the bill. “Amanda, and so many survivors like her, have to navigate a complex and cryptic maze of policies and laws that differ from state to state, jurisdiction to jurisdiction.”
That may seem like some classic political embellishment, but the truth is that navigating the law around rape is a minefield, especially when complicated by the trauma survivors are processing. It’s estimated that more than two thirds of all sexual assaults are not reported, with 42 percent of physically forced survivors choosing to not report so that no one would find out. Which is astonishing considering that the CDC estimates that 25 million Americans are rape survivors, a population nearly equal to the state of Texas.
If a survivor does choose to report their assault, or at least get tested and make up their minds later, they’re far from out of the woods: Ninety-eight percent of sexual assaults result in no one spending any time in jail. Whether that’s due to the stigma and doubt survivors are met with from police officers filing the report to the community at large.
Perhaps most astounding is the high price tag that comes beyond a basic rape kit, as The Daily Dot reports:
Rape victims are often encouraged to go to the emergency room for a rape kit and examination, which can lead to bills in the tens of thousands. And even though federal law prohibits hospitals from billing rape victims for their examinations, Sarah Layden, director of advocacy services at the Chicago-based nonprofit Rape Victim Advocates, told the Chicago Tribune last year that many hospitals still send patients the bill. (A law went into effect in Illinois in January that requires hospitals to let patients know they won’t be billed for rape kits, and fines hospitals $500 for breaking that law.)
Even if hospitals adhere to such mandates, the federal law doesn’t cover all expenses. Rape victims may still end up paying for treatments of injuries sustained from the rape, plus emergency contraception and medications to prevent or treat HIV infections and other STIs, according to NPR.
The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act may not resolve all those payments, nor will it cure the legal system of its disorder when it comes to rape. But the fundamental principles—that rape survivors deserve the right to have a say in the lives of their rape kits—is key to helping break down the culture of shame that shrouds sexual assault from the light of the law. And currently police in all 50 states are allowed to legally dispose of rape kits before the statute of limitation expires. And there’s currently 400,000 untested rape kits sitting in evidence rooms across the country.
Last year, the federal government started announcing grants to help states wade through the backlog of rape kits in their facilities. At the time, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said the message was clear: “For anyone who has felt isolated and afraid, left out and left behind as a result of a sexual crime…We will not forget you. We will not abandon you. You are not alone.” With S. 2566, that promise can be just a little closer. Hopefully the House follows suit.