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The Sexual Assault Survivor Saving Untested Rape Kits from the Trash

Feb 2 2016 6:50 PM
The Sexual Assault Survivor Saving Untested Rape Kits from the Trash

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Rights for sexual assault survivors vary from state-to-state, and in some jurisdictions rape kits have an expiration date. We talked to the activist who is pushing to standardize the confusing road to justice for rape victims.

Bi-annually, 24-year-old Amanda Nguyen is reminded of the day she was raped: Twice a year, every year, she has to make sure her rape kit isn't destroyed.

In Massachusetts, which is where Nguyen was sexually assaulted, untested rape kits are only kept for up to six months. After that point, they're thrown out—despite Massachusetts' 15-year statute of limitations for rape—unless the victim requests to extend the cutoff. But often, that process is far from straightforward, and victims aren't even made aware that their crucial DNA evidence has an expiration date. The entire process of collecting physical evidence for a rape kit can take anywhere between three to seven hours; after rape victims go through the exhaustive collection method, how can they be left with nothing?

Read More: Helping Rape Victims Get Justice

"The six-month rule makes me live my life by date of rape," Nguyen tells Broadly. "It's so ludicrous, because in other states this isn't the case. Had I been raped in a state like California, Colorado, Illinois, or Texas, this wouldn't happen to me. Those states have civil rights measures that don't allow the destruction of evidence before the statute of limitations. Justice shouldn't be dependent on geography. It's completely unconscionable that a survivor in one state would have a completely different set of rights than a survivor in another state."

It's completely unconscionable that a survivor in one state would have a completely different set of rights than a survivor in another state.

Because of this, Harvard grad, deputy White House liaison at the State Department, and astronaut-in-training Nguyen started Rise with the help of some contacts. Rise is a non-profit organization that advocates for systematic legal protections for sexual assault survivors. "I could either accept injustice of rewrite the law," she explains. "It's kind of crazy that in order for me to have rights I need to pen them into existence." But that's exactly what she did. She recently helped introduce HB 1278—a bill in Massachusetts that would end the six-month limit on untested rape kits—and a version of the bill in Oregon that would override the statue of limitations on rape if new physical evidence arises. On a federal level, she also helped write House Resolution 230, a bill that's backed by representatives from both sides of the aisle as well as by law enforcement. House Resolution 230 outlines the first nationwide campaign that would encourage state-by-state adoption of a comprehensive sexual assault survivors' bill of rights in order to standardize the justice process for rape victims. Nguyen and Rise are also working on an overarching federal bill that will be introduced into the Senate at the end of February.

In addition to stipulating that rape kits must be tested in a timely manner and held indefinitely unless the victim requests otherwise, House Resolution 230 would urge every state to give survivors the right to know the results of their rape kit and the right to a sexual assault counselor, among other crucial guarantees that would improve the likelihood of prosecuting rapists. "In places where states don't explicitly protect these rights, survivors have no recourse to access information about their rape kits if they are denied them. Under the [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act], patients should be able to access their own medical records, but since HIPAA doesn't specifically say anything about sexual assault or rape kit examinations, some survivors are still being denied that right," she says.

Innocent people get exonerated because of DNA evidence—destroying evidence is a bad idea across the board.

According to Nguyen, House Resolution 230 will also benefit both survivors of sexual assault and the accused. In addition, unlike with the controversial Safe Campus Act, victims would be entitled to the rights outlined by the bill regardless of whether they report their rape to the police. "This bill would help survivors navigate the criminal justice system, but it could also help accused people," Nguyen says. "Innocent people get exonerated because of DNA evidence—destroying evidence is a bad idea across the board. These are the most uncontroversial rights that everyone can get behind. It's so basic."

"Rape is a very complex problem," she continues. "What we're trying to do is create, at the very beginning, a civil rights bill that allows survivors—and other people who are affected—to be met with a fair system. The worst thing that happened to me wasn't the rape. It was being betrayed by a broken criminal justice system."

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