A nationwide effort is kicking off Thursday to fix a patchwork of state laws that allow many cities to destroy rape kits before they’re tested, sometimes in a matter of weeks.
The national campaign is led by a nonpartisan victims rights group called Rise, which gained acclaim by getting an historic survivors bill of rights signed into federal law last year. Its goal now is to replicate that federal statute on the state level by pushing state legislatures to reform laws on the collection and storage of rape kits.
“This is quite rare; movements usually take decades, and this is happening in a matter of months,” Amanda Nguyen, Rise founder, told BuzzFeed News.
In October, President Obama signed the “Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act,” which guarantees victims the right to a free medical forensic examination or rape kit; to have the kit preserved until the statute of limitations ends; and to be given the results of their rape kit. But the legislation — which passed through Congress without a single “no” vote — only applies to assaults that occur in the military, on Native American tribal land, or on federal land, like government buildings and national parks. Plus, the majority of sex crimes are prosecuted under state statutes, so Rise says their work is just beginning.
Like it did for the Congressional bill, Rise teamed up with Funny Or Die to create a video rallying support for the campaign. The video stars Tatiana Maslany, the Emmy-winning star of the BBC’s Orphan Black and highlights the obstacles rape victims face due to policy gaps around rape kits.
Rise organizers said they have volunteers ready to go in 19 states and have identified 11 more where they’d like to expand their campaign and need more volunteers to join. Rise-backed bills have been introduced in 13 states so far this year. They’re working with lawmakers to draft more legislation and expect one soon in New York, where state law allows rape kits to be destroyed after just 30 days.
Abby Haglage, a 29-year-old writer in New York City working with Rise, said she was assaulted by a stranger with a weapon on a Manhattan street in 2013. When she felt emotionally ready to file a police report and try to get cops to investigate two years later, Haglage said she learned that the hospital had already destroyed her kit.
“I can’t get my own rape kit back, but I can do everything I can to make sure other people’s aren’t destroyed,” Haglage told BuzzFeed News.
The proposals vary between states, depending on existing laws and protocols, but they have similar goals: the guaranteed preservation of rape kits, the right for victims to receive results of their forensic examinations, and the right to have an examination performed at no charge. The Rise-backed proposals will not address prosecutions or how police conduct investigations.
Some Rise-backed legislation emulating the federal measure is already moving through statehouses, like one signed into law this month in Virginia. Others mix elements of the federal bill with additional ideas, like in Oklahoma, where one bill gives victims the right to know the progress of their rape kit, and prohibits first responders from discouraging victims from getting forensic examinations.
In West Virginia, a state senator recently introduced a bill strongly patterned off of and inspired by the federal law, along with complementary legislation to require a state commission to establish protocols and timeframes on testing rape kits. West Virginia is an example of a state where Rise is already backing legislation, but doesn’t yet have volunteers on the ground to shepherd it through.