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Missouri lawmakers consider ‘bill of rights’ for sexual assault survivors

Missouri lawmakers consider ‘bill of rights’ for sexual assault survivors

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Rape Kit Testing

This Feb. 8, 2017, photo, sexual assault evidence collection kits are shown during committee meeting at the Utah State Capitol in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

JEFFERSON CITY — It leaves you traumatized and feeling powerless. And if you’re a friend of a survivor, it makes you feel helpless.

That’s how advocates described the experience of sexual assault during a hearing Wednesday, as plans to improve how victims of abuse and sexual violence are treated in Missouri move through the General Assembly.

The Senate Seniors, Families and Children committee heard testimony on a proposed “bill of rights” for sexual assault survivors. This came after a House committee on Tuesday night weighed updates to the state’s civil protection order statutes to help law enforcement deal with online stalking.

Sen. David Sater, R-Cassville, is sponsoring the first proposal, which would establish protections for survivors during and after sexual assault forensic examinations.

The bill of rights is meant to ensure survivors have “confidence in the system and that they will be taken care of,” Sater said.

The protections would include the right to have a staff member or volunteer from a rape crisis center on hand during examinations and interviews with law enforcement. The law would also ensure that survivors are never prosecuted for misdemeanor crimes based on evidence from their examinations, among other protections.

Sater’s legislation also states that survivors have the right to a prompt analysis of sexual assault evidence kits, commonly known as rape kits.

Missouri is currently analyzing a large number of untested kits. The Attorney General’s office counted about 7,000 after an investigation by the Columbia Missourian first exposed the backlog.

Failing to uphold these rights — or intentionally neglecting them — would open up law enforcement and others to civil liability. But agencies that lack the resources or funding to follow the law wouldn’t be liable if they act in good faith.

“Access to justice should not depend on your ZIP code. Survivors everywhere deserve these rights,” said Caitlin Ryan, who described herself as an ally of survivors and testified in support the legislation.

Ryan was an organizer of the Women’s March on Washington in 2017. She described being forcibly kissed by a male volunteer after the march, an experience that erased the strength she’d felt that day.

“But I’m here today because I know that I am not helpless and we are not helpless,” she said.

Ryan said removing barriers in the justice system would help support survivors of sexual violence.

“You have the opportunity today to join with lawmakers from 23 other states around the country,” she said. “And you can support the 1.8 million survivors of rape here in Missouri.”

Ryan also works for Rise, a national legislative advocacy nonprofit that is pushing to implement a sexual assault survivors’ bill of rights in every state.

Stalking legislation

A plan to revise Missouri’s legal definition of stalking to deal with rapidly changing technology went before the House Judiciary committee Tuesday night.

Rep. Lane Roberts, R-Joplin, a former police chief and former director of the Missouri Department of Public Safety, is sponsoring the legislation, which would affect civil protection orders but not the criminal code.

“The problem today is technology has proliferated beyond what anybody would have thought 10 to 15 years ago,” Roberts said. “Right now, you’ve got this gaping hole in the stalking laws.”

Law enforcement can’t help victims who are stalked through newer forms of technology, including the internet, he said.

Both Republicans and Democrats objected to what they said was overly broad language.

“The way that this is written right now, I think that if a bill collector was calling me, I could get an adult abuse order,” said Rep. Gina Mitten, D-St. Louis. “It causes me emotional distress to have somebody calling me three times a day telling me that I owe money.”

But language that is too specific can lead to stalkers not being held accountable for their actions, said Colleen Coble, the CEO of the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence.

“Very often, as soon as you set the bar here in stalking, then the behavior moves around it,” she said.

The sexual assault survivor’s bill of rights is Senate Bill 812. The stalking legislation is House Bill 1341.

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