Something unusual happened in the U.S. Senate on Monday: a unanimous vote, on a bill to grant new rights to sexual assault survivors.
The bill solves a host of problems that most people only become aware of if forced to confront them as victims of sex crimes. It stipulates that victims cannot be charged for the forensic examinations—colloquially known as “rape kits,” in which evidence is collected—and establishes a right to have the kit preserved for the duration of the maximum applicable statute of limitations. It also requires that victims be kept informed about the location of their kit, whether it has been tested, and its results. The bill would also guarantee that survivors have access to trained sexual assault counselors, and would form a 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 organization that lobbied for the bill was founded by a 24-year-old whose story perfectly demonstrates the need it would address. Amanda Nguyen, a “State Department liaison to the White House in training to be an astronaut,” according to a recent Guardian profile, was sexually assaulted in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 2014. Though the statute of limitations in the state is 15 years, current law only requires that rape kits be stored for a span of six months, after which the evidence they contain is destroyed. For survivors like Nguyen, the only way around this is to obtain an official extension twice a year. “The system essentially makes me live my life by date of rape,” Nguyen told the Guardian. Once, she even had to fly from Washington, D.C., to Massachusetts to confirm its location and keep it out of the trash. She founded a nonprofit called Rise to lobby for legislation that could keep disjointed government systems from re-traumatizing victims—or from shutting them out of the justice system by quietly destroying the evidence they’d need.
“It really makes no sense to have 15 years in which the survivors can bring charges against someone, and then to destroy the evidence that’s going to be so critical to convicting them, in a six-month period,” as Senator Jeanne Shaheen, the sponsor of the bill that passed the Senate yesterday, has told the Huffington Post. Massachusetts isn’t the only state where this occurs, either by law or by accident—just last fall, for example, efforts to take stock of untested rape kits in Kentucky and North Carolina revealed that the kits were regularly destroyed.
This isn’t the first time that a Congressional body has come together in support of victims of sex crimes. Revelations that hundreds of thousands of kits are sitting forgotten on police department shelves—and that serial offenders remain at large while evidence that could convict them collects layers of dust—have previously pushed lawmakers to vote through $45 million in funding to test them. More than 50 members of the House of Representatives last year put their names on a bipartisan resolution that encourages states to pass their own legislation to ensure prompt testing of rape kits and grant other key rights to rape survivors. Still, as the Huffington Post reported in February: “Currently, no state provides a right to retain the rape kit until the statute of limitations expires. Only six states and Washington, D.C., provide a right for the prompt testing of a rape kit.” Nguyen’s bill could change that—and could free her from the personal nightmare in which she must battle state bureaucracy to preserve her own rape kit every six months.