House Unanimously Approves Bipartisan Survivors’ Bill of Rights Act
WASHINGTON, D.C. – The House of Representatives today unanimously approved by a vote of 399-0 the Survivors' Bill of Rights Act of 2016, bipartisan legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose) to provide protections for survivors of sexual assault.
The bill will ensure that sexual assault survivors in federal criminal cases have a right to a sexual assault evidence collection kit, are notified in writing before the kit is destroyed, request preservation of the kit, and are informed of important results from a forensic examination. The Survivors' Bill of Rights Act also requires the Attorney General and the United States Department of Health and Human Services to convene a joint working group on best practices regarding the care and treatment of sexual assault survivors and the preservation of forensic evidence.
"Today's vote to pass the Survivors' Bill of Rights Act means we are one step closer to ensuring victims of sexual assault have meaningful access to justice," said Lofgren "But it is also a testament to the strong women who refused to be victims, who walked into my office just four months ago with an idea to improve the lives of millions of survivors, shared their stories with the world, and today watched the passage of their bill on the House floor. They are the real difference-makers, and they are an inspiration to me."
Original sponsors of the legislation are U.S. Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Niguel), two members of the House Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Speaker, passing the Survivors' Bill of Rights Act is an important step in enacting protections and ensuring access to justice for many Americans who are survivors of sexual assault.
In May, just this last May, I found myself meeting with Amanda Nguyen, Lara McLeod, and Marisa Ferri and their friends in my office as part of Assault Awareness Month. They had asked to meet with me, as the senior woman on the Judiciary Committee, and then they told me I was the first actual Member of Congress whom they had been able to meet with.
When I did listen to them, this is what I heard: Amanda Nguyen told me about her rape, that every 6 months she was faced with the choice of reliving her past trauma or having the State of Massachusetts destroy essential evidence that would assist in the prosecution of her rapist: her medical forensic examination, or rape kit.
When Amanda sought information on how to prevent her rape kit from being destroyed, police provided conflicting information. She was even told at one point that the kit would be stored indefinitely, which was not correct. She then had to go back and forth between police and State lab techs trying to locate her kit. And even when she found it and got the extension on storing it, the technicians moved her kit without telling her, and she now has to file an extension every 6 months just to preserve the evidence.
I listened to Marisa Ferri tell me that she thought her rape would be the most traumatic experience of her life, but what she found out was that even more traumatic, according to her, was the way she was further victimized by the system after being raped. When Marisa went to the hospital to seek medical treatment and requested a forensic exam, she was prevented from doing so until after she spoke with the detective.
She asked if the interview could wait until the volunteer from the Rape Crisis Center arrived, but was told that she had to be interviewed then if she wanted to press charges. Alone and confused, Marisa underwent nearly hours of questioning by a detective who tried to discourage her from filing a report and blamed her, according to Marisa, for her own rape.
Marisa is, unfortunately, not alone in being misinformed about her rights, and being interrogated instead of being allowed the opportunity to undergo a rape kit procedure in an expedient manner and to ensure the maximum effectiveness that the evidence has been collected.
Marisa endured 6 weeks of repeated questioning by the detective about her behavior on the night of the rape. At times, she said she felt like she was the one under investigation.
Initially, her case was closed without the rape kit being tested. It was only after she filed a formal complaint that the case was reopened more than a year later and the rape kit was tested. Many survivors would have given up on a system that had failed them as much as the system failed her and would not have pursued reopening their closed case.
Lara McLeod suffered through further victimization after sexual assault. She reports that, at 19 years of age, she was raped by her sister's fiance, but she did not want to report the crime. Instead, her family, who she told about her sexual assault, informed the police, and she was told to go to the station for a formal interview.
After a cursory investigation, she reports that the police accused her of lying about the rape and arrested her.Her sister was charged with obstructing justice for aiding Lara's alleged deceit. The false charge against Lara and her sister were eventually expunged, but not before damage to reputation and her sister's savings being spent on dismissing the charges and, worse yet, her sister being denied full custody of her infant son because of the charge against her, which ultimately resulted in this son dying while in the custody of Lara's rapist.
I mention these terrifying stories because that is what this bill is all about. It is also about the power of individuals to change the law. After I heard their stories, within 2 hours, I talked to Judiciary Committee Chairman Goodlatte on the House floor and told him about these stories.
To his credit, Chairman Goodlatte immediately contacted his staff to make sure that we could work together on this bill. Only 2 short months later, the Judiciary Committee unanimously approved this legislation. The House version includes a small improvement on the text passed by the Senate; and it is my hope that, after passage in the House, the Senate will also approve this version so it can be sent to President Obama for his signature.
I want to thank all the members of the Judiciary Committee for their action. But even more, I want to thank the courageous victims of rape who formed the group RISE, who did rise and who exerted their power to take control of this situation, who would not accept being victimized but, instead, decided to take their trauma and change the law so that other victims will have more power than they had. The congratulations go to them.
Mr. Speaker, I reserve the balance of my time.