On April 13, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed legislation that would expand the rights of survivors of sexual violence.
The Washington Post reported that the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Amendment Act of 2017 was crafted after a year-long deliberation of an independent task force, made up of multidisciplinary professionals. The goal of the task force was to reflect on national best practices for sexual assault cases and to make recommendations about how the District of Columbia could improve its response to sexual violence.
The legislation builds on the Sexual Assault Victims’ Rights Act of 2014, adding multiple provisions that help survivors preserve rape kits, require prosecutors to provide a reason to the victim about their decision not to prosecute a case, and expand the right of a victim to have an advocate present during interviews with prosecutors and law enforcement. The bill also clarifies a victim’s right to compensation under existing insurance policies and it expands the definition of what constitutes a sexual assault crime by including the removal of a person’s clothing without their consent.
Currently in D.C., a sexual assault survivor is defined as anyone who is 18 years or older who’s experienced sexual violence. With Mayor Bowser’s new legislation, people as young as 12 years old who experience sexual assault would be considered victims by law. Children under the age of 12 are still considered sexual assault victims, but they do not have the same legal right to an advocate that victims 12 and older have. They could still access support through victim services networks, but law enforcement and courthouses are not legally bound to offer children under 12 a sexual assault advocate.
The director of D.C.’s Office of Victim Services, Michelle Garcia, explained to The Huffington Post why this provision is so significant.
“It would afford teenagers the same rights that adults have in the aftermath of a sexual assault, and that includes the right to have an advocate,” Garcia said. “Someone who could provide support, information and help the victims and their families navigate the criminal justice system. Every right an adult would have, a teenager would have as well.”
This expanded definition is relatively common among states, Garcia said. D.C. is simply catching up.
Kristen Houser, the chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Research Center, spoke with The Huffington Post about the importance of having a third-party advocate whose main role in the process is to support the survivor ― something that victims under 18 weren’t previously offered after an assault.
“There’s no guaranteed outcome in the criminal justice system ― if there’s a plea, if someone doesn’t show up, if there’s an acquittal, if it keeps getting stalled and rescheduled,” Houser said. “Somebody who’s working with the court system is working with the court’s schedule, and that advocacy is dependent upon a victim being involved in a court case. In reality, a victim and their family may need support greater than what the court system can provide while they’re in it. And that can extend long beyond the resolution of the case, no matter which way it goes.”
In reality, a victim and their family may need support greater than what the court system can provide. Kristen Houser, National Sexual Violence Resource Center
The goal of the bill, Garcia said, is to give more support to survivors, making it less painful for them to navigate the court system and therefore easier to hold perpetrators accountable.
First and foremost, the bill is about affording survivors’ rights to ensure that systems are “treating victims and survivors with fairness, dignity and respect,” Garcia explained.
“We know that when victims and survivors feel supported,” Garcia said, “they are more likely to engage with and stay engaged with the criminal justice system which leads to increased offender accountability.”
Houser pointed to the “ripple effect” of trauma that families often experience when a teenager is sexually assaulted.
“When you have juveniles who have been victimized, it has a massive ripple effect through the family,” she said. “So having some guarantee of rights to access services from organizations that may be better equipped to meet the family’s needs can really benefit. It benefits not just the victim and their family, but when you have somebody who’s better supported and understands the next step in the process, it can absolutely help them do well in terms of the role of testifying in a criminal case.”