Legislative Gazette: Legislators unite with advocates to revamp rights for sexual assault survivors

By Alexa Appel, 3/5/18

Sexual assault survivors often lose the ability to take legal action against their attacker since they are not aware of their rights.

New York Senator Kemp Hannon, R-Garden City, and Assemblywoman Aravella Simotas, D-Astoria, were joined by survivors of sexual assault to discuss the importance of expanding the rights of sexual assault survivors.

There is currently a three-bill package in the senate (S.6428A, S.6947A, S.6964A) that is focused on creating a Survivor’s Bill of Rights, maintaining unreported rape kits for 20 years, creating a rape kit tracking system, establishing a sexual assault forensic examination (S.A.F.E.) telemedicine pilot program and ensuring victims are never billed for exams.

“This package of bills makes sure survivor rights are clearly spelled out, unreported kits are maintained according to federal best practices, all victims have access to specially trained sexual assault providers, and that hospitals are not inappropriately charging survivors,” Hannon said.

Currently, hospitals retain rape kits for 30 days before discarding them. If a victim leaves the hospital, choosing to take time instead of submitting their kit to NYPD at that moment, the location of their kit becomes unknown and unavailable. There is no tracking system that ensures the kits not get destroyed.

Abby Haglage is just one of many survivors who will never have the chance to convict her offender. Haglage is a writer, activist for New York Rise, and survivor of sexual assault.  In 2013, she was raped in Manhattan by a stranger.  She went to the hospital the next day and went through three hours of physical and emotional pain of having her body violated once again to collect this evidence.

Haglage left the hospital wanting justice one day, but needed time to cope with this living nightmare. Two years later she went to NYPD and was told that her kit was destroyed.  She received no call or warning that her kit was discarded. She now can never stop her offender from hurting someone else.

“Victims must be informed of their rights, they must have access to information about the status of evidence analysis and untested rape kits must never be destroyed prematurely,” Simotas said. “This is common decency and common sense.”

With the help from these bills, time limits won’t discourage victims from reporting, and will give them the chance they deserve to come forward when they are ready.

Ilse Knect, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, says that DNA is an important tool that links serial crimes, and convicts offenders. Without knowing where rape kits are located, there is no justice for survivors.

If legislature enacts these bills that create statewide tracking systems and allows the transfer of kits from overcrowded hospitals to central storage locations, New York can set an example for the country to enact comprehension rape kit reform as well. As of now, Texas is the only state with this reform.

“Victims of sexual assault, dealing with the trauma of a violent crime, should never face the additional burden of a hospital billing for forensic exams,” said Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard N. Gottfried, D-Manhattan.

There are gaps in the system to protect survivors and bring justice for them. Not billing survivors is an extremely important change that is necessary.

“All victims of a sexual assault deserve to be provided comprehensive care and appropriate treatment, but many facilities lack the professional training of a sexual assault provider,” said Nancy Harris, a nurse practitioner and the manager of the Forensic Nurse Program at St. Peter’s Health Partners.

The telemedicine pilot program will allow professionals to assist any examiner and walk them through the process of collecting evidence. This program could allow kits to be collected anywhere and will make sure all victims are taken care of the right way.

Effort will be required to keep moving these bills through the process with the help from legislators and advocates. These measures currently before the houses are necessary to ensure sexual assault survivors in New York get the best treatment possible and are not re-victimized by the system.