Establishing Basic Rights for Survivors of Sexual Assault

Senator Shaheen meeting with Amanda Nguyen, a survivor of sexual assault.

It’s been 10 months now since Amanda Nguyen first walked into my Washington, DC office. Amanda is a survivor of sexual assault who has been bravely sharing her story to legislators across the country. Her experience is heartbreaking. As she will tell you, the trauma of the assault was made worse by what came next as she sought justice. After reporting her assault, she experienced a criminal justice system that was working against her, not for her. 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.

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.

In some states, survivors have even reported being billed for a rape kit.

When you hear about Amanda’s experience, you can see why nearly 70 percent of survivors don’t report their rape or decide not to press charges. This has to change.

Amanda isn’t accepting the status quo and has decided to take her harrowing experience and use it to drive change.

I was deeply moved by her story. Soon after that initial meeting, I got to work with my staff, and we began writing legislation. In federal law, there has never been a basic set of rights for survivors of sexual assault. And we know from past experience that when the federal government makes changes to criminal statutes, states often quickly follow suit. So, in February, I introduced the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act in the United States Senate which will codify basic rights for survivors of sexual assault, and provide a model for similar reforms at the state level across our country. The basic 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 of a sexual assault forensic examination.

• The right to not be charged for a forensic exam.

I’ve been very encouraged by the public support for this effort. A Change.org petition in support of these rights just surpassed 100,000 signatures this week.

I also have encouraging progress to report from the Senate: Earlier this month, the bill I introduced cleared an important hurdle when it was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee. There’s also promising signs that it will soon come up for a vote in the full Senate. It’s clear that there is momentum, across the country and in Washington, for fixing this broken system.

The system failed Amanda, and so many other survivors across the country, but Congress can begin to reform it. The goal of my legislation is to change the culture around how sexual assault survivors are treated as they pursue justice.

I look forward to updating you on further progress in this effort.