D.C. proposes new legislation to provide better support for victims of sexual assault
Last week after an impassioned eight hours at the D.C. council hearing, survivors of sexual assault and victims’ rights organizations made a compelling argument against the way the Metropolitan Police Department currently handles cases of sexual assault within the District. A new bill known as the Sexual Assault and Victim’s Rights Amendment Act, or SAVRAA, was also presented as this hearing.
SAVRAA was drafted as a vehement reaction to the Human Rights Watch report released in January of this year which revealed that the MPD has routinely failed to report sexual assault cases and has subjected victims to improper, even traumatizing, treatment. This legislation was created through the collaborative work of the Sexual Violence Response and Prevention Council along with a broad coalition of community advocacy groups, assault survivors, and key stakeholders convened by the DC Rape Crisis Center.
The overall aim of this new bill is to substantially improve the rights of sexual assault victims; however, some specific provisions include heightened confidentiality between survivors and victim advocates, improved forensic examination kits, and strengthened accountability from the MPD. It also calls for the right of victims to a trained advocate present at all times at medical and law enforcement proceedings.
Although the SAVRAA already addresses numerous issues that exist with the handling of sexual assault cases, vital improvements to the bill still have to be made in order to ensure that victims are fully protected. These include required case reviews by the Sexual Assault Response Team and the establishment of an external consultant to assist MPD with the report progress and the employment of the best possible practices.
Bridgette Harwood, co-executive director of the group Network for Victim Recovery, also stressed the significance of having a trained advocate present to encourage and assist victims in coming forward with their assault allegations.
“Additionally what is really missing from this bill is an explicit right for a survivor, to have the right to information when the offender is notified that they’ve made a report, so they can safety plan and have peace of mind,” she says.
In cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia, there has already been evident collaboration between police, government and advocacy groups to provide strong, foundational legal and community support for sexual assault survivors. According to Julia Strange, Director of Policy for Collective Action for Safe Spaces, although there have already been tangible improvements within the District in regard to the handling of these cases, now is not the time to get complacent.
“MPD still needs to restore the public’s confidence through oversight and transparency,” she asserts. “If the DC community perceives that MPD is not taking these crimes seriously, survivors might not feel comfortable reporting sexual assaults.”
Photo: joebeone via flickr